John Hegley review: A unique and quirky one-man cabaret

John Hegley. Photo: Jeremy Richardson/Norwich Arts Centre

John Hegley. Photo: Jeremy Richardson/Norwich Arts Centre - Credit: Jeremy Richardson/Norwich Arts Centre

John Hegley is best known for writing poems about dogs, glasses and potatoes but the bespectacled bard showed a far greater range as he entertained fans at Norwich Arts Centre with songs and poems old and new.

It was hard to tell if he was bowing or exercising as he drifted on stage and began repeatedly bending over arms dangling towards his toes. After several decades of performing Hegley is entering the veteran stage of his career but he retains a youthful, amateurish stage persona. He flicked through his various books and folder of new work reading poems as if he had just stumbled on them but with an assured delivery which soon had everyone laughing along.

Things moved up a gear when he sang, accompanying himself on various small string instruments. The songs were always a joint effort with increasingly complicated elements of audience participation. 'You aren't going to get it right so just try,' he told a section of the audience after they repeatedly failed to deliver their line in the first song to his satisfaction.

There were plenty of spec, spud and canine references during the show but other themes have emerged in his later work, particularly family. His father featured regularly in his early poems but he has explored the Hegley family tree in greater depth with songs about growing up in a Luton bungalow and a love song from his grandfather to his grandmother, who was a French dancer, set to the tune of the Can Can. In one of his more poignant poems about remembering his parents he declared: 'I still have both my parents, it's just they're no longer alive.'

The show was accompanied by a slideshow featuring his father's oil paintings of France and the doodles that feature in his many books. The show opened with a picture of his childhood living room as a backdrop. 'I don't think there were so many books on the shelf' he admitted. The TV with a Dalek on the screen prompted a list of things to cheer up a Dalek suggested by teachers including bubble bath, a blocked sink and a fun slide with escalator. There were also pictures of various types of dog and guillemots – another new theme in his work. The guillemot song was accompanied by an extensive and demanding series of actions.

Hegley's friendly and playful manner allowed him to get away with teasing his audience who were a sidekick throughout the show. Some members were singled out to perform a Baroque dance on stage, translate a French poem or were ticked off for not doing actions properly.

Constant juggling of poetry, music and comedy created a unique and quirky one-man cabaret from a visually challenged Luton lad who's become an unlikely national treasure.