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Review: Carol Ann Duffy with John Sampson @ Lichfield Cathedral

Getting the new Poet Laureate to Lichfield would have been a real coup by incoming Festival Director Fiona Stuart even if Carol Ann Duffy’s visit hadn’t been the fantastic success it turned out to be. But Ms Duffy is a seasoned performer of her own work with the knack of being able, even in a large space, to communicate intimately with her audience.

The Cathedral Choir isn’t the best venue for any theatre event, sightlines-wise, but while the Herkenrode Windows are being restored it’s a good opportunity to revel in the high-Victorian richness of its decoration.

What was also in evidence was its superb acoustic quality, especially during the serendipitous pair of sets by Ms Duffy’s co-performer John Sampson. He delighted with a light-hearted programme of strange and wonderful music played on a variety of unusual period wind instruments from the crumhorn (on which he appears to be a virtuoso) to the Chinese silken gourd.

Carol Ann Duffy is that rare creature, a much-loved Laureate, whose elevation produced delight in her many admirers. A brilliantly inventive writer, she also possesses something even rarer – a slyly subversive sense of humour. This came out loud and clear in her first set, poems from her ingenious 1999 collection The World’s Wife in which she tells the stories of famous men from history and myth as related by their wives.

Especially delicious are the problems encountered by Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias whose husband has an involuntary sex change, and Darwin’s wife being strangely reminded of her husband on seeing a chimpanzee. Vivid images abound, such as the voice that is “a cling peach slithering out from its tin.” My own favourite was Mrs Faustus who describes her husband dallying “with a virtual Helen of Troy”.

Her second set containing new unpublished poems was a rarer treat, more personal and introspective, culminating with a moving and ingenious poem examining her feelings on her mother’s death. A real landmark for the Festival, and if the queues to meet the poet afterwards were anything to go by, a huge popular success.

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