It's hard to imagine being as revered as John Hegley, one of the nation's best-loved performance poets. Today's queue outside the Assembly Checkpoint starts forming at least half an hour before time – basically an overnight camp-out in Fringe terms. In no sense is Hegley's challenge to win over an audience and, in the hands of lesser performers, this power might easily be abused, the performance phoned in. But Hegley is no lesser performer, and while he does certainly abuse his power, it's in the service of stretching his audience rather than resting on his laurels.
Take a moment this afternoon, for instance, where an audience member heckles him with one of his own lines. They are a committed bunch, and want to hear the catchy hits they can recite by wrote. No, he tells them flatly. We're not doing that one. I've got some different lines. Elsewhere he chides the audience for their failure to put their backs into the actions. It's all very good-natured, of course, and delivered in his faux curmudgeonly persona. But the message is clear: live performance isn't the same as sittling listening to Radio 4. If it's to mean anything then it can't be passive; transactional. This is neither.
Of course, "stretching" is perhaps overstating the case for a poet whose default modes are whimsy (see 'Armadillo', all surreal non-sequiturs and humorously off rhyme), or gentle nostalgia (the Luton Bungalow). But it's an open-hearted, joyous whimsy which revels in the oddities of human relationships, and reveals them in odd ways.