Jess Green and the Mischief Thieves: Burning Books

Unity Theatre
13th October 2015

Reviewed by Joe Coventry

The stage was bare except for a microphone, a cajon (sitting drum) and a standing guitar. The lighting was subdued, and there was an edgy unease in the auditorium.

At 'The Bell' it still looked like most of the audience were playing truant, but not chancing a big 'A' in the Register, a coach load turned up just in time for a 65 minute lesson on what life is like in the lower echelons of a secondary school, courtesy of poet Jess Green.

Enter then the 26-year-old, operating out of Leicester on her first national tour with The Mischief Thieves backing duo. After a short explanation of how she gravitated from a school Reading Champion to self employed beat poet, Green laid out her stall on teachers, staff rooms and kids affected by ever -tightening budget cuts and unremitting performance targets. She was not talking public school speak at this gig.

Launching into a poem on identity she rapped out the disparity between Government and right wing press views on behaviour and attitudes to what pupils are actually thinking and talking about during a regimented and structured day of lessons.

For kids aged 13 it's belly button piercing, false eyelashes or growing beards and false hangovers, or imitating a science teacher's dress sense to look cool, only to be sent home by the headmaster for throwing text books; Nathaniel, Dylan, Gaz and Trix mouthed into life at a tremendous tempo.

She doesn't pull her punches when confronting the views of present and past Education Secretaries, lambasting Nicky Morgan for saying that interest in the Humanities will lead to a failed career; as if poetry or art or music are not 'real jobs'!

'At 14 you are what you are inside - don't belittle your horizons' Green rattles out to staccato back beat and uncomplicated guitar.

Michael Gove comes in for particular opprobrium for discounting the value of course time work at the expense of stressful end of term exams and also for straitjacketing the curriculum to English kings and queens, Shakespeare and Dickens at the expense of wider world literature and events. Fahrenheit 451 it is not, but the vitriol behind Burning Books comes out in 'Dear Mr G.'

However the poems carried much more.

The reasons behind teachers having to strike over performance-based pay rises; the likes of the Daily Mail berating, as feckless attempts to protect terms and conditions while scabs cross picket lines.

How about expectant dewy eyed and unqualified graduates back from Bali gap years and 'involving everyone' Professional Team Builders telling seasoned and dedicated teachers how to do it right, while the mascara is still wet on their own eyelids?

Meanwhile, a stressed mother constantly rings an harassed teacher marking 35 classwork books asking, yet again, if Jason can bring her kitchen knife back home and a despairing Reading Champion sits alone in the Library; it's easier that way.

Green likes Liverpool humour, having studied here, and was pleased to see an appreciative crowd laughing along, or frowning, and sometimes nervously tittering at more taboo areas of content, while she never broke into a sweat delivering this word perfect performance.

All in all it was a well received and challenging night's work.

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