Writer: Maria Ferguson
The Living Record Festival certainly offers a varied programme of audio dramas and films during its month long run. And there’s room for spoken word too. Alright, Girl? is a digital poetry recital featuring the work of playwright Maria Ferguson. Reading from her debut volume of poems, Ferguson captures a disappearing working-class East London in evocative tones with some memorable turns of phrase.
There are two main themes to Ferguson’s verse; London, and herself, and often these subjects run in parallel. The best poems are those about the pubs of the East End, the one she works in and the ones she frequents. The first poem is called Where Everyone Knew The Krays and it’s full of life where men wear camel coats and women drink vodka and bitter lemon. Because of gentrification this East End has almost vanished and so Ferguson’s poems are elegies to a bygone era and a close-knit community. ‘Stay East,’ these ghosts tell her.
In a world where we hear about toxic masculinity on a daily basis, it’s refreshing to hear Ferguson extol the virtues of the men who come in her pub. They seem decent, hard-working men and in one poem she describes how one man is rescued from depression, poverty and hunger by his friends. When he hasn’t been seen in the pub for a while, the men go to his house and almost break down the door to make sure he is okay. They don’t have much themselves, but they can stand him a pint, and listen to his problems. When the man comes to the bar, Ferguson remembers, ‘ all I can manage is/”you alright mate?”/”Yeah, I’m alright.”’ These small words carry weight.
Among the poems of pub life, we hear snippets of Ferguson’s autobiography from when she was a girl at school to, presumably, the present day. The order in which the poems are presented offer a optimistic narrative arc where she begins to love her body, and its fluctuations in size. In the early Sleep she rails against her form as if it is not part of her: ‘My body pretends to be stable/It thinks I am stupid’, but in later poems like Glasgow there is acceptance and self-worth.
In recent years there has been a push to make sure that art by working-class artists is seen and heard in order to the break the illusion that theatre and poetry is only for the bourgeoisie. One of the most successful plays about the working-class life and, importantly, written by the working class too was Flesh and Bone by Elliot Warren and that like Alright, Girl? loved language and regional colloquialism. Ferguson’s work brims with sunbeds, chocolate limes, flying saucers and sovereign rings that speak to lost childhoods, but she is full of fondness for these days and your own childhoods may unravel and open up in listening to these poems.
Although the audio form of this show can’t compensate for a room above a pub with the snap of appreciative clicking fingers, Chris Drohan’s sound design of a person walking through city streets, and which also picks up random dialogue between passers-by and the puff of a jogger, adds another layer of urban colour to Ferguson’s poems. The design never overpowers the poetry: the words are quite rightly prominent here.
Some poets would be embarrassed to admit that they work in a pub to make ends meet, but Ferguson spins this idea on its head, and she remembers the time when she was embarrassed to tell her friend Hannah that she was thinking of becoming a poet. Nervously, she throws ‘my one word secret/ from the pit of my stomach/on to the water/watching it skim the surface/ waiting for it/to sink.’ Thankfully, for poetry’s sake, it didn’t.
Runs here until 22 February 2021
The Living Record Festival runs here from 17 January to 22 February 2021