When Luke Wright performed his second verse play at the Soho Theatre in April 2019, I was there, front and centre. I watched him spit angry verse about Thatcher, and fumble with the microphone at Simon Mortimer’s first (and last) open mic, and I watched him sob onto an absent father’s shoulder when Frankie Vah came crashing down, and Simon Mortimer was left where Frankie once stood. I cried at its glory. It was electrifying, so when Luke Wright turned to Twitter to perform his one-man show once again from his study during lockdown, I was there with bells on.
Frankie Vah is a vibrant journey through the nostalgia of adolescent political angst, combined with a mid-20s bildungsroman. We feel the burning desperation of youth take hold as the young Simon Mortimer rejects his father, and rejects himself, and becomes Frankie Vah. It is not easy to stage a narrative about adolescent self-definition that rings true to both young and old when you have come through the other side, but Luke Wright manages. In all of his poetry, he is faithful to the know-it-all certainty of your 20s without glamorising it. And yet he is always winking; he never lets us doubt that if he knew then what he knows now, everything would be different. He writes a love letter to his youthful arrogance but never longs to go back. Frankie Vah is a seminal display of nostalgic, but achingly self-aware, reminiscence.
Nostalgia aside, the desperate, angry politics of the play is in a league of its own. His shows are political, they have a voice, so Conservatives beware. As Wright launches anti-Thatcher zinger after anti-Thatcher zinger, he feeds the soul and turns his audience’s heads unapologetically towards the hope for better that the political left has nurtured since 2010. For Frankie, the hope for better is something to believe in. It is something to take hold of. It is something to lead you forward when you are stuck in a dingy office job in Colchester. It is something to lead you forward when you wake up on a park bench, teeming with regrets. Simon’s political awakening might not be the main narrative of the play, but Wright stitches it into his every word. His self-destructive clinging to hope is what makes us feel that Frankie lives in us all; it makes you long for the make-believe glory of the mid-80s, when things could only get better and punk was leading the charge.
Most tenderly, and quietly, Frankie Vah is the story of a young man growing, and understanding. The play’s screaming action is all wrapped up in a complex and tender relationship between father and son, and is held tight by the once-eternal chest-binding love affair between two young artists. Through Simon’s relationships with his clerical father, and his struggling-artist girlfriend Eve, we see his vulnerability. He is not only a soldier of punk, growling through the microphone at drunks who refuse to listen; he is a drugged-up body held together only by euphoria and doubt. The Simon we meet is not the Frankie who wants to change the world, but he is the one we watch, once again leaving his father’s house to follow the hope of spring.
In his dizzy desperation for certainty, we discover that success breeds success until triumph eventually breeds the violent desperation for more. In his play Frankie Vah, Luke Wright refuses to let go as he shows us Simon Mortimer growing into Frankie Vah, and gives us a final squeeze as the bud bursts, and Frankie grows into something beyond.