Luke Wright is a fucking fantastic poet, and his second verse play, Frankie Vah, is all about poetry. The whole play is a poem. A poem about a poet – the eponymous aspiring ranter, who wants to inspire the masses with his vivid and vicious political rhymes during the dark days of Thatcher. He finds some success, books a tour with a band, and the narrative seems to be shaping up along familiar lines.
Only nothing is familiar when filtered through Wright’s spitfire verse. It’s absolutely mesmerizing: the lyrical, musical push and pull, the perfect detonation of sharp consonants and stretchy vowels. It’s hard to imagine anyone performing it better, with his impeccable control of pace, volume, tone. Sometimes he stumbles but still manages to fit the words to his carefully constructed rhythms.
Wright has composed a one-hour opera without music. Or at least, without any music besides the backing of ‘80s rock that underscores Frankie’s journey as a would-be political radical in Thatcher’s Britain. These contrasts, between epic rock and spitting verse and what is ultimately a grubby, ordinary story, are delicious.
The uniqueness of the poetry means that the inherent self-centred-ness of a one-man show is dramatically emphasized. Only Frankie is real. We here everything from his perspective. When he speaks for others, they can only speak in his distinctive voice. Even though this becomes part of the poetry, I found myself wishing that other characters – especially Frankie’s girlfriend, and his father, who isn’t quite built up to his eventual importance – could be as fully-formed as Frankie.
As I write this, I find myself fantasizing about what Wright would do with dialogue, with a multi-person play, what ingenious ways he’d find to write verse with descants and counterpoint. It would also free him from the slightly unfortunate (though, in the circumstances, completely understandable) fact that as long as Wright himself is his only character, he will only be giving voice to cis, white men.
What seems like a slightly self-congratulatory narrative of talent rewarded becomes smaller and sadder than that. Though it does hit some clichéd notes, especially surrounding the girlfriend who catalyses and symbolizes Frankie’s rise and fall, the play stumbles off the script that Frankie tries to write for himself. Poetry and politics stutter out of his control.
Wright, on the other hand, maintains masterful precision. That’s part of what makes his poetry so intoxicating. The words seem like they might spill over the boundaries of his verse in their pulsing urgency, but they only actually manage it when Wright wants them too. This show hit me like one of Frankie’s drug-fuelled hangovers: I’d think I had forgotten about it, then there’d be a snap of recollection of the sound, the feeling. It’s a feeling that leaves you craving more, more, more.
Frankie Vah is at Soho Theatre until May 5th. For more details, click here.