In a beautiful climax of his marathon of livestream Twitter gigs throughout lockdown, just ahead of his 100th performance last Friday, Luke Wright performed his first verse play, What I Learned From Johnny Bevan, last Wednesday for the final time. I missed this show when it was originally toured, but did manage to catch it when he performed it on Twitter back in April (oh so long ago?!), and it was a glorious whirlwind of maturation and the everlasting battle between the real and the phoney. I couldn’t wait to see it again.
The play begins with an overture; an angry, isolated storm of how London is ‘not for you’ and vicious images of the city. Here at CUB, we know London on its good days and its bad, so this was incredibly poignant to me. This overture sets the play in good stead, as it opens with the concept of London, the wonderful melting pot of culture, being inaccessible and exclusive. These contradictions, and the eternal battle between the authentic and the phoney, is what the play wraps itself around, as we follow two idealistic boys growing into very different people. Luke Wright presents us with the glorious immortality of two young lads, smoking on top of a high-rise estate building. In this moment, they know exactly what the world should look like, but when they finally descend, it is nothing like they thought.
Wright balances the dichotomy of Nick and Johnny perfectly, as though they are two sides of the same coin. Johnny Bevan’s raging fire burns out crushingly quickly, whereas Nick maintains just a level of the political left that he is still employable in sell-out media. We see – through Johnny’s desperate authenticity and Nick’s job surrounded by those he once professed to hate – that in youth, a phoney is the worst thing you can be. But in age, we are forced to temper ourselves to fit a mould. What I Learned From Johnny Bevan wrestles with the youthful desperation to be really, genuinely, authentically cool, and reminds us that sometimes the brightest 19-year-old stars burn out pretty fast.
As I noted in my review of Frankie Vah, Wright’s writing is always tinged with the political. This is possibly the most overtly political of his trio of verse plays, as we are forced to do the unthinkable: feel sympathy for a UKIP supporter. Through the obscured maturing of Johnny Bevan, we are forced to truly analyse the nature of disenfranchisement in British politics. The play was first performed in 2015, a time at which UKIP was standing strong and presenting either a saviour or a menace to the political landscape, depending on whether you lived in Jaywick or not. Johnny Bevan is one of the many disenfranchised ex-Labour supporters who felt cast out by the champagne socialism of Tony Blair, and he turns to UKIP to stay afloat. In this spiral downwards from impassioned speeches to ranting on Facebook, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. I both loathed Johnny for the low he had reached – how could he do it?! – and understood exactly how it had happened. In this move, Wright wickedly illuminates the political situation of 2015. The situation changes from black and white to grey; people who once heralded Blair as a hero had been kicked to the curb by the man himself, so they needed something new.
As in all of his performances, whether in real life or on Twitter, Luke Wright’s performance really takes the cake. He deftly hops over momentarily forgotten lines; the verse is in his bones, so if it is forgotten, it is never for long. The Jekyll and Hyde characters of Johnny and Nick are so closely entwined, and Wright switches between the two in a heartbeat. It is never easy to pull off a one-man-show featuring a handful of characters, but it seems to be second-nature for Luke. Seeing him transform into Johnny Bevan is something to behold. The character takes over him and seizes every piece of his body, until we do not see an artist playing a role, but Johnny Bevan himself. If this was a one-off, it would be impressive, but after 97 consecutive days of performing in his office, this is nothing short of spectacular.
As ever, Luke Wright blends the magical headiness of youth with the aching knowledge of what is to come to create a nostalgic, melancholy image of the realities of modern British politics, and it takes hold of you instantly. As Johnny Bevan shouts that he ‘won’t be calmed down’, we know that politics is more than the news at 10, and it is more than a cross in a box. It is something that owns you.