Last time Telia Nevile was here for Fringe she performed a show which was a series of short sketches, in the framing narrative of a pirate radio show, in which she leaned into the character of a conceited and pretentious (yet well-meaning) intellectual. This year, she’s taken on a more ambitious project, somewhat softening the edges on her alter ego in putting together a fifty-minute story about a socially-awkward poet, who decides to compete in a beauty pageant to show up the girls who made her school life "a fiery hell".
There is something quite old-fashioned about Nevile. In a loose wrap dress, and with her short hair, she's more than vaguely flapper-esque, and wouldn’t look too out of place on a Downton Abbey set. And as a stickler for grammar, and a defender of values, she is also something of a preservationist. So it perhaps it isn't that surprising that she is attempting, here, a single-handed revival of long-form poetry, and Poet Vs Pageant is told entirely in the style of that lost art:
Twin-winged harpies of self doubt and despair
Circle the girls; raise up their neck hair
Cold it is on the shores of the swimsuit round
And breezy in all the wrong places
They each must play the cards that nature dealt
Stripped down there's nowhere to hide their aces
The recital is an impressive one, both textually dense and fiendishly clever, chock full of wordy goodness. And Nevile brings it all to life with a confident, animated performance, which is helped along by her Seussian range of facial expression – she can fix a wicked grin, one which perfectly compliments the darkly comedic undertones of the tale. In the hands of a lesser poet, it would be tedious to sit through, but Nevile keeps it sharp and crisp.
Poet Vs Pageant does not have the variety of Telia Nevile's last show, nor is it as laugh-out-loud funny, but it is clever, distinctive, intelligent and insightful: a feast for lovers of literature, and a delight for fans of the nerdy-underdog tale.