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Review: People Speak Up: Rhian Elizabeth, Clare E Potter, Bella Collins 

12 May 2024 4 minute read
Clare E Potter, Bella Collins and Rhian Elizabeth (photo Rhian Elizabeth)

Ben Wildsmith

As the sun streamed down on Llanelli Thursday evening, there seemed to be an easy wellbeing about the place.

People were enjoying an al fresco drink and assembling for the People Speak Up show at Ffwrnes Fach. It’s a beautiful venue housed in the old Zion Chapel, and the ethos of the place is an organic fusion of rooted culture and modern sensibilities.

The communal atmosphere reflects the building’s history. It’s a place people have gathered together for a very long time, and, under the pipe organ, it seems natural to chat to whomever is at the next table.

Equally, though, these events are created to meet the needs of today’s audience. Warm and welcoming, they are planned to be as inclusive as possible with refreshments available for an optional donation and break-out spaces for anyone who needs to step away for a while.

As the name suggests, People Speak Up is all about showcasing and nurturing voices. Thurday’s bill features three very different takes on the world.

Bella Collins is a beloved talent on the Welsh music scene. In demand as a singer/guitarist and bassist, she possesses one of those voices that’s seems to wrap you up in rich tonality, only to sting a little when she pushes it or elevate when she leans back and lets it float.

It allows for a wide range of emotions to find its way to the audience, whether through the jazz and blues standards she interprets or her fine, original songs.

Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, her playing is led by strong basslines and jazzy chordal inflections.

Her own Part Time Lover carries a jaunty playfulness reminiscent of Nina Simone in cheerful mode, whilst a spontaneous Wade in The Water, played by audience request, showed the emotional heft that her formidable musicality can wield.

Effortlessly spellbinding, Collins’ cool-as stage savvy and easy wit are the launch-pad from which she soars.

Bella Collins, photo by Susie Wildsmith

The poet Clare E Potter is many elements all at once, fizzing and overflowing as she corrals them into a compelling stage presence.

Her collection, Healing the Pack, was launched last week and is an affair of the heart, eighteen years in the writing.

Potter’s poems deal in memory, family, and trauma. They are hymns to the people and places she grew up around in Cefn Fforest, adult appreciations of childhood impressions that made her.

Their language is the rainbow virtuosity of Valleys English, shot through with snatches of Cymraeg. (Her next collection, she tells us, will be in the language).

There is rhythmic storytelling, filmic in its clarity and set beside poetic observations of majesty in tiny moments. The poems find beauty in hardship and caveats to joy.

Potter’s performance inhabits that dichotomy as she ascends into certainty before cutting herself down to vulnerability and clambering back up, clinging to her beautiful words as a guide to redemption.

An emotional high-wire act, she is as fierce as she is fragile, Mam and daughter at once. She is extraordinary, a Valleys Piaf.

Clair E Potter, photo by Susie Wildsmith

Rhian Elizabeth is a study in understatement. Acclaimed for her 2018 collection, The Last Polar Bear on Earth (Parthian), her poems are finely chiselled and unsparing.

Having flashed us a knowing smile and announcing, ‘some poems about lesbians and Taylor Swift’, she stands still and works on the lonely spaces inside us all.

Space is important in Elizabeth’s work. Things are left unsaid, wrenching all the more in their absence. Unspoken events whisper through delicate descriptions of their aftermath.

Listening to this work is to stand on the rumbling of a distant earthquake, far enough away to be safe but close enough to tremble.

That smile is there for a reason, though, and after the poems have unsettled you, they often curl away into wise humour.

Calmly, they take you where you are afraid to go, before leading you back home and setting you down to think.

Rhian Elizabeth, photo by Susie Wildsmith

The breadth of perspective on show thrilled a capacity audience in Llanelli. Each one of these artists can reach an audience with rare artistry.

Rhian Elizabeth’s collection Girls etc is published by Broken Sleep Books and Clare E Potter’s Healing The Pack is published by Verve.

Follow Bella Collins on Instagram.

Keep up with future events at People Speak Up here.

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