Stranded – Anthony Toner and Frank Ormsby

Anthony Toner and Frank Ormsby take to the stage in Belfast's Strand Arts Centre for an evening of poetry and song inspired by their recent collaboration.

Hallucinations, death, disease, Elvis, Maggie May, cinema, nostalgia… just some of the eclectic themes gleaned at The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast on a stifling, sweaty Friday night.

And it was funny. Very funny in fact. More entertaining than could have been anticipated. Here was one of Northern Ireland’s most popular songwriters Anthony Toner with one of our finest poets, Frank Ormsby oddly juxtaposed on stage.

The pairing came about some time ago, and resulted in ‘The Kiss Of Light’, a beautiful album of twelve poems read by Ormsby and responded to with instrumentals composed by Toner.

This evening is a simple, informal format. Frank will read batches of poems, Anthony will play some of those instrumentals and the better-known material – but the best bit is the banter; the chemistry, camaraderie and comedy.

On Frank’s first reading in a cinema, he kicks off with a few poems about how it used to be with anecdotes about an Irvinestown childhood; how the reels had to be distributed around Fermanagh by bus in an aluminium box marked “handle with care” for John Wayne was in there. Or maybe Rip Torn. Or, God forbid, a weepie.

Cue a few songs on childhood revisited. From Toner’s 2017 album ‘Ink’, ‘Great Big World’ charmingly evokes 70s TV detective series, westerns, Elvis, the Rumble in the Jungle, Saturday Morning Swap Shop while ‘Exit Wounds’ explores a childhood memory of a friend’s father showing off a gun while under the influence of alcohol. Well, it was the 70s after all.

Fathers feature throughout. Ormsby’s father turns up often in his poetry. Haunted by the presence of his distant father figure who was already old when Frank was born and died when he was just twelve years old.

‘My Father Again’ and ‘Bog Cotton’ which both feature on ‘The Kiss Of Light’ are followed by Toner’s reflective instrumentals.

Toner tells a touching anecdote about his own father, who has Alzheimers. Humour as a coping mechanism is often never far from the aging and infirm, hence the song from ‘Ink’; ‘Alphabet’. A is for Alzheimers and childhood memories as featured in Square Eyed Boy.

Mothers are not to be outdone. The influence on both men of a strong maternal presence is explored. For Ormsby, through his poem ‘Winter Offerings’. For Toner, the beautiful ‘Night Prayer Of Saint Augustine preceded by another funny, explanatory anecdote about his mother’s morphine-induced visions and hallucinations.

For one night only, death and disease become the victims of comedy as Ormsby entertains with various stories about his Parkinsons, from the hallucinatory effects of medication, to Googling jokes about the disease, to explaining that the first fan letter he ever sent was to Billy Connolly.

Then he reads his poem ‘The Hour Glass’ which outlines in detail what he wants his wife to do with his ashes when he’s gone. Genius!

Ormsby describes ‘The Gate’ as “an odd poem”. I would agree. He wasn’t sure whether to include it in the collection or not. He did. It also features on ‘The Kiss Of Light’. It is a curious one alright. I didn’t like it at first, but it made me think and I get it now.

It wouldn’t be a Toner gig without crowd-pleasers like ‘Sailortown’, ‘Marion, That’s All Right’ and The Road To Fivemiletown but this evening it is the laughter that speaks volumes.

Frank’s collection ‘Goat’s Milk’ has indeed been a hit. In fact it’s sold out and copies are rare as hen’s teeth. The Farmyard Haikus bring on more belly laughs. Each farmyard animal given an increasingly risqué response in seventeen syllables.

And a reminder of John Cooper Clarke’s infamous Haiku:

To-con-vey one’s mood
In sev-en-teen syll-able-s
Is ve-ry dif-fic

‘Stranded’ is a series of affordable Friday night events at The Strand Arts Centre, Belfast. Hosted by Seedhead Arts. BYOB and only £6.