Luke Wright likes his words. And he likes lots of them. In this, his second verse play following the successful ‘What I Learned From Johnny Bevan’ he delivers pathos and emotion and fine storytelling with his characteristic machine gun delivery.
Frankie Vah tells the tale of an angry young man in the 1980s, an Essex vicar’s son called Simon Mortimer who is passionate about his politics and his poetry. But he seems to be heading for failure, he has crashed out of university unqualified, has a dull job in an office and is back home challenging his father’s faith and patience.
Then he meets Evie, a passionate young artist. Inspiring each other’s creativity they set off for a Bohemian life in London, where Simon gets the taste for being a stage poet. This is the 1980s, when it was possible to live in London on rather less than a merchant banker’s salary. Simon takes the stage name Frankie Vah, and starts to build a reputation as a solid left wing voice in the world of performance poetry. His ambition is to join Paul Weller’s Red Wedge collective of Labour supporting performers. Spotted at a poetry gig by a band manager, he soon finds himself on tour with a rock and roll band, and takes to the drug and drink laden lifestyle that goes with it.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Luke’s career may see this as in some ways autobiographical, but Luke was only born in 1982. Sadly I am a bit older, and remember the 1980s rather too well as I was one of those angry passionate young men then, with the same commitment to left wing politics. What made this show remarkable for me is how precisely Luke captures the 1980s zeitgeist. 1984 in particular was a turning point for many of us, with the class war of the Thatcher versus the miners battle removing any inhibitions we may have felt about starting a discussion of politics at work, in the pub, anywhere.
One of the many themes of Frankie Vah is the disappointment of the more left wing Labour supporters with the moderate centrist leadership determined to take votes from the Tories. In particular, the moderniser Kinnock with his war on Militant caused tensions which surface in Frankie Vah’s stage performances as he performs as support to rockers The Midnight Shift, when his Party loyalty is tested beyond the limit. The parallels with the current (and perpetual) divisions in the Labour Party give a particular edge to the show.
Frankie Vah is not just politics and poetry, it is a show about love, lust and loss, and the perennial ability of young men to really fuck things up all round. Luke Wright spits out words with a pace and ferocity that few can match, but he is also the master of the tender moment, the aching yearning fall into love and the subtle changes of dynamics within family relationships as events unfold.
As the show ends the audience is silent for a second, before the applause starts, almost as if we can collectively breathe after the breathless stampede of this verse play. The fully deserved applause is as enthusiastic as his performance. Luke explores the themes that are central to our lives, the light and shade of lives lived to the full. He connects with all of us in a performance that feels so personal that it must be his own story, but this is theatre, this is telling a tale, this is poetry in motion, a ballad for right now. A joyous, life enhancing experience. The Playhouse auditorium is a cosy and intimate venue for Luke, who is growing ever larger audiences that recognise his unique talent. A craftsman of the spoken word, Luke brings this show to Norwich as a first performance of what promises to be a successful tour of a show that will undoubtedly grow and develop and bring him further acclaim but is delivered with a confidence that defies its newness.
Frankie Vah is at Norwich Playhouse until Saturday night as part of the N&N Festival – more information here:
Read our review of Luke’s last Norwich show here:
©Julian Swainson 2017