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Goldfish Bowl review at Battersea Arts Centre, London – ‘full of flighty, free-wheeling energy’

Lex Amor and Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bowl. Photo: Camilla Greenwell Lex Amor and Caleb Femi in Goldfish Bowl. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Ex-English teacher and poet Caleb Femi has had a hell of a life. He spent his early childhood in Nigeria, followed his parents to a Peckham estate, embraced the nascent grime scene as a teenager, then got embroiled in a dangerous gangland culture.

He wound up shot in the leg, but it was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in his hospital bed that proved the catalyst for change. In 2016, he was named young person’s laureate for London.

His new show, Goldfish Bowl, produced by creative collective the Paper Birds and made in collaboration with multidisciplinary artist Lex Amor and illustrator Olivia Twist, threads through his life story with music, poetry and a gloriously genial, chilled-out vibe.

The entire show is just Femi and Amor knocking around on Rebecca Wood’s abstract, neon-streaked, microphone-scattered set. Sometimes they act out scenes together. Sometimes they rap together. Sometimes Femi weaves poetry around Amor’s trippy beats, Twist’s line-drawn illustrations swirling around them. Most of the time they just bicker with a warm, relaxed wit.

Slowly, though, Goldfish Bowl gets deeper and darker. The sandy streets and mango trees of Nigeria fade into a world of high-rise tower blocks, stop-and-search, class A drugs, and gunfights in south London car parks. Femi’s story swells subtly from the personal to the political.

Jemma McDonnell’s production never loses its flighty, free-wheeling energy, though. Femi and Amor both have natural charisma and bags of talent, and it’s a genuine delight to just absorb them bouncing off one another for sixty minutes.

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Collaborative, poetry-infused journey through the life of former young person’s laureate for London Caleb Femi