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Literature Review: Austerity Cafe

29 March 16 words: Leanne Moden
Local poet Andy Szpuk's long-form literature show that uses poetry and music to take a look at austerity
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It was a damp and dreary Wednesday evening, when a group of souls, seeking comfort from the bleakness of modern life, sat down in the performance space at Rough Trade to watch Austerity Café. Devised and performed by local poet, Andy Szpuk, it's a rhyming performance piece that draws on the current politics of austerity to shed light on what this governmental belt-tightening actually means for people at all ends of the political spectrum.

Despite this heavy-sounding summary, it was an enjoyable piece of theatre, with Szpuk playing a series of politically-minded costumers who visit the titular café to wax lyrical about their personal thoughts on ‘Broken Britain’. Szpuk deftly satirises the arguments for austerity, targeting bankers, neoliberalism, little-Englanders, capitalists and politicians, and attacking the austerity agenda without ever feeling preachy or condescending. His poems are fast-paced, fun, and sharp-tongued, and he pulls no punches when it comes to his characters, allowing each one to trip up on his own hubris to the delight of the audience.

This is Szpuk’s first long-form live literature show, and builds on a collection of poetry that he began writing as a result of the recent conflict in Ukraine, from where Szpuk's family originally hail. As a political poet, Szpuk knows his onions, and there are some great, stand-out moments including the cheeky, sing-song rhythm of Cutting the Welfare State and the terrifyingly accurate A Thousand Quid Concealed in a Concrete Mattress. The show builds to a wry, somewhat ironic climax with a fantastic rendition of We’re Still Good at Making Guns, which laments the loss of manufacturing in the UK.

During the show, Szpuk plays four diverse characters: a banker, a lorry-driver, a protester, and the café owner, and we get an insight into their beliefs through their poetic musings. Musical interludes are performed by guitarist Paul Quadros, who adds another dynamic to the piece.

At its heart, Austerity Café is a show about inequality and the imbalance of power. Szpuk uses his time on stage to hold a mirror up to society, pulling apart the politics of austerity to reveal a reflection that seemed to make the audience laugh in a way that only really happens when you’ve hit upon a kernel of truth.

Of course, Austerity Café is a fairly one-sided argument, falling squarely in the anti-austerity camp. But it’s also funny, well-written and well-executed piece of theatre. As with many similar pieces of work, it works as the beginning of a much longer conversation.  And in the end, isn’t that what good art is all about?

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