by Hannah Rose
Luke Wright’s eighth solo show The Toll is a razor dipped in sugar: Ian Duncan Smith is a “jiggling tit” and rumour has it that a lion stalks the good people of Essex. It’s an hour of truth or dare, but not without the candid insight that self-reflection demands of performance poetry. Wright connects with his audience through just the right amount of personal anecdote tinged with good times and bad, and a generous scattering of cultural and political satire.
Brexit, Question Time and John Betjeman. It’s all in there. This line is hard to walk when it’s just you on the stage—too much waxing-lyrical about good times with your mates and you’ll bore your audience. Equally, too much of the dark stuff and the lights go out. People don’t generally pay £12 to be brought down by bad news.
Luke Wright’s eighth solo show The Toll is a razor dipped in sugar
In rhetoric, ‘eunoia’ is a word that describes the good-will a speaker establishes between them and their audience, “a condition of receptivity”, a contract of sorts. Luke Wright handles this space extremely well as a performance poet, arriving on stage with a modicum of laddish swagger, but dressed in a frock coat Oscar Wilde would have coveted. You can’t not like him. Eunoia is also the title of an ambitiously linguistic poetry anthology by Christian Bok (2001), cited by Wright in The Toll. Bok’s anthology restricts each chapter to the use of only one vowel—a form of univocalics that Wright echoes in two poems featuring ‘I’ and ‘U’.
This is where Wright’s acrobatic skill really shines. His meditation on Ian Duncan Smith – our favourite mean-spirited Tory – in his poem ‘IDS’, is prickling full of dark stars in a dark world: “This priggish birch witch…/I wish him midnight shifts /I wish him illicit kingship with pigs.” The ‘U’ vowel comes later, a “dirty” vowel which tells the story of “Burt” who “hunts bunk ups” where the “suburb lulls” and does things to “Ruth’s mum” which has put me off “humus” for life.
Other vegetable based food stuffs feature prominently in Wright’s support act, Jemima Foxtrot, a twenty-seven year old all-round performer who has cut toenails in exchange for lodgings and sung with strangers at bus stops to will the bus’ timely arrival. Her poem about organic veg boxes acknowledges the anxiety that quickly-softening beetroot induces. She’s spot on. Anyone who’s been overwhelmed by the wholesome pile of root vegetables that arrives on the door step each week, will understand.
Foxtrot reminded me of Bjork a little bit: off-beat and refreshingly comfortable in her own skin. She is experimenting with traditional English folk song and her own verse, weaving melody and spoken word. The result is a curious medley which smacked of something verging on truly original, but which I needed to hear more of for it to resonate properly.
The result is a curious medley which smacked of something verging on truly original
What really resonated for me was Wright’s dissection of the cultural backwaters of his home county, Essex. Having also grown up in a small town with narrow world-views, I could laugh bitterly along upon hearing his familiar frustrations. ‘The Essex Lion’ opens with a spontaneous outburst of expletives ardently trying to convince its audience that “a fucking lion!” really was sighted in downtown Clacton. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But Wright finds tenderness for his home in the bigger picture – England. His opening poem ‘The Toll’ is an invocation of Blighty, appealing to her better nature to help put right what has been wronged: “Oh England heal my hackneyed heart”. Although Wright’s heart might have taken a battering of late – which he admits at various interjections throughout the show – it is clear that it is still generous, and the caustic line of humour that runs right through it like a black thread, only adds to its character.
Featured image © Idil Sukan