Luke Wright’s poetry is often topical but his new show. Essex Lion, begins with a piece drawn not from the headlines but the ‘silly season’. Last year a group of caravaners in Essex purported to have seen a lion: a search party of experts from Colchester Zoo and police marksmen was called off when a local woman revealed that they had actually seen Teddy Bear, her cat which, though admittedly a larger breed than average, was far from leonine.
Wright’s work is frequently located in the intersection between the personal and the political: for instance, his poem about the Philpott case examined the identities of the people behind the headlines, and by doing so identified aspects of our society that are in desperate need of reform.
Essex Lion is more heavily weighted towards the personal than previous show Cynical Ballads. Wright (to paraphrase) says that Essex Lion is a show about the illusory things in our own lives that we nevertheless hold on to, and persist in investing with meaning. The only poem explicitly about politics was ‘Nigel Farridge’, and though it fitted with the spirit of the theme— UKIP’s illusion being based on a kind of nostalgia for colonial Britain—it seemed strangely shoehorned in to what was otherwise a fairly personal set: an enjoyable rallying cry, but one that would perhaps have been more powerful had it stood alone.
Another poem, entitled ‘Sue’s Fourteener’, is about an old lady living on an estate full of people who increasingly reject her neighbourly efforts at friendliness. This could have been traced back to the Thatcherite rise of individualism as a social principle—in fact, Wright might have chosen to turn this poem into an all-out attack on this pernicious legacy of the 1980s. Instead, focusing almost entirely on Sue allows him to depict rather than grandstand which strengthened the poem’s politics. There were points, I felt, in Cynical Ballads where Wright’s characters begun to feel used, as if they were solely the means to an allegorical end. Sue feels real: thus, the emotional response of an audience member commingles with an understated political backdrop. ‘Sue’s Fourteener’ retains the intense storytelling of Wright’s previous work, but the effect is more satisfying. It’s a high point of the show, and alone vindicates the poet’s decision to give primacy to the personal.
That being said, this approach doesn’t necessarily play to all of Wright’s strengths as a poet. Watching him, it becomes quickly apparent that he has the confidence of a comedian, and funny material to boot—this is particularly true in his spoken sections between the poems. His poetry, however, can be even funnier than he is, particularly in its satirical dimensions. There’s a large amount of self-satire here: at points Wright reads some of his teenage juvenilia and ‘Posh Plumber’ plays on his own definably middle-class experience of alienation from the labouring class/imagined kinship with the affable but incompetent upper classes.
Nostalgia—a major theme of this show—is a tricky one generally. For Wright, however, it seems like a natural theme. On a technical level, there’s something seductive about the way he uses rhyme, assonance, and older verse forms that aren’t as popular with other performance poets. It is almost as if he is utilising the pleasing elements of nostalgia in order to contribute to the revitalisation of form in poetry. Attentive listeners might notice that the poem dealing most directly with nostalgia in Essex Lion is written in Chaucerian rhyme royal. This particular poem is again highly personal (it deals with a young Wright’s first kiss), and extraordinarily evocative without being mawkish, though the last few lines – about not being able to return to the past – felt superfluous, to the point of revoking some of the powerful and complicated emotions that Wright established in the poem’s earlier sections.
Anyone who has followed Wright’s work over previous years will be excited by the fact that, aesthetically, he has once again taken a step forward with this show. Essex Lion seems like an experiment on Wright’s part and a successful one to boot.
When I saw the show, he seemed to be having an off-day: but seeing Wright on an off-day is still a incredibly worthwhile experience. A couple of years back, I wrote in my review of Cynical Ballads that I’d been perhaps excessively critical in my assessment only ‘because the work is so strong and the substance of Wright’s poetry demands to be engaged with’, and that’s probably true of here as well. Make no mistake this is a great show and his poetry itself remains as vital and redolent of our times as ever.