Is the British audience ready for so much emotion? Slam poet Neil Hilborn @ O2 Academy Liverpool

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

I have to double check I’ve come to the right venue – surely this can’t be it. There’s a queue! It’s American slam poet Neil Hilborn’s gig at the 02 Academy, and it’s packed. A really varied crowd gather to witness his performance as part of his new UK tour which has brought with it other Button Poetry heavy hitters Sabrina Benaim and Rudy Francisco.

The artists squeeze in extended sets of powerful, punchy, immediate work so let’s get straight to the point. Rudy Francisco’s performance is nothing short of a spiritual experience. His honest, emotional and often funny work wraps itself up in clever metaphors and distinct images that dance across our minds like a ballet, with attention paid to audience participation. We’re deeply engrossed in Rudy’s work, at moments almost forgetting we’re audience members.

In fact, all the acts actively encourage audience participation – perhaps a little too much; our quiet British sensibilities seem at odds with this reactionary, finger-clicking Beatnik vibe.  I can’t be sure how this is translated, but I get the sense American performers might find British audiences hard to please.

Sabrina is a fever-dream of sweet sadness and mindful, meticulous metaphor. Her work talks about mental health, family, love and womanhood in a unique way that makes us smile with recognition regardless of our actual experience. Making us recognise somebody’s experience is the whole point of the poet, really.

Hilborn’s work is known for being booming in its scope, volume and emotional volatility. He himself paces across the stage like he’s about to rip up the set list and go off on one, his poems driven by a sense of urgency – of immediacy and drama. His boyish banter and jibes endear us to a complicated position that pushes and pulls. Watching Neil Hilborn perform is as welcoming as it is difficult to watch. Certainly, the volume of the performance, the pace and the emotional intensity might put people off. That’s alright; his success has been secured by being distinctive.

The audience is left bewildered by a waltz of emotion that is Neil’s moving, emotionally-driven performance. There is clearly an audience for American writers coming to the UK which is fantastic, leading to a cross-pollination of our experiences and styles.

Despite the possibility that the polite British audience might appear disinterested or silent to an American performer, there’s something for both parties to take away, grounded in the shared experience of witnessing something new. I leave the night with words rattling around my brain and a fire burning somewhere in my gut.