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Emily Harrison: This Never Happened
Arts Theatre, London
IT’S a year to the day since Emily Harrison was resident in a psychiatric institution. She’s marking the fact with this hour-long show which starts with her lipsyncing to Jennifer Hudson’s And I Am Telling You, which many will know as the song that Chi Chi DeVayne owned on series eight of Drag Race. As ever, Harrison serves up fabulous.
Voted best spoken-word performer of 2016, her show has plenty of poetry in it, much of it focusing on Harrison's experiences with mental health. Notably, she never puts herself forward, or backward, as a victim in a narrative that examines how she is presented as a “mental-health poet” — a female and working class one at that — and how she presents and brands herself as an individual rather than as a neat label.
“We edit the truth,” she says, and she makes an engaging, heartfelt and funny truth from all she is and has been through. Being a fastidious writer she knows full well what Aristotle writes in his Poetics: “The ridiculous consists in some form of error or ugliness that is not painful or injurious; the comic mask, for example, is distorted and ugly, but causes no pain.”
Harrison is very precise that she’s talking about herself and not making light of anyone else’s experiences. Other people and their stories populate her poems and she asks: “Do I have a duty to tell them or not to tell them?” She shows how a crafted poem can illustrate our lives and connect.
Excitingly, there’s a laser pointer in the show but even when Harrison is using this to home in on the pictures projected behind her, the point is the connection between what we perceive, what we choose to show, and who we really are.
More than any other poet I have seen, Harrison has made talking about mental health a positive thing that wears away an often disturbing label to a human face. That someone talks openly about this is still shocking to my generation and I feel the need for it and the power in it.
Many young poets falter because they’re anxious about presenting themselves on stage. The point of Harrison’s show, and one of the reasons she’s such a good live poet, is that she takes ownership of who she is and how she’s seen. The door is only as open as we let it be, we only show what we want to.
Get yourself through the door to This Never Happened. To paraphrase the lipsynced song at the opening: “You’re gonna love her.”
Emily Harrison is appearing at the Port Eliot festival in Cornwall, July 26-29, details: porteliotfestival.com.
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