Reviews Edinburgh Published 17 August 2015

What I Learned From Johnny Bevan

Summerhall ⋄ 7th-30th August 2015

Things can only get better.

Natasha Tripney

It’s such a fucking cliché, to talk about a show as a journey. But I’m tempted to use the phrase here because I really think it fits. Because there’s a trajectory to Luke Wright’s latest show, a sense of motion, both creative and emotional. It’s his strongest piece to date. Let’s get that said first. In terms of ambition, structure, and delivery, Wright has set himself a series of challenges and they’ve all paid off.

This is such a rich piece of writing. There’s so much in it. It’s resonant and timely and it tells a story compellingly. And the story it tells is kind of flooring, raw, all too familiar. Wright plays (I think that’s right, I think that’s fair, this is not a recital, it’s a performance) Nick, an arts journo of a very recognisable type, a bit of a cock with a top-knot.  At the beginning, as we meet him, he’s on a press trip to a London music festival and the PR machinery is doing his head in. That’s just a jumping off point though, a place to begin. The meat of the piece concerns Nick’s time at university and the friendship that develops between his younger, idealistic self – aching to escape himself, to enter a world of poetry and ideas – and his more politically engaged friend, Johnny Bevan, the kind of guy who doesn’t seem to need to try, who gives every impression of having arrived fully formed, while everyone else is just hatching, emerging.

Wright pins down this feeling, of rocking up at university with a head full of other people’s words and a deep wish to reinvent yourself, that realisation that it’s not all that easy to erase the places you’ve been in your life, that growing understanding that your past rides with you and always will. It’s era-specific, with the late 1990s inked on it, the music, the politics. He absolutely nails that uprush of feeling on election night 1997, the impending wave of change, the fuck-you and fuck-off to Portillo and co, the hope and glory of it.

He also captures the intensity of the friendships that can develop at this time in a person’s life, that process of imprinting. Bevan is a hero first, a human second and, as that transition takes place and, ultimately, a gulf between them widens, as life takes over, it’s fucking heart-breaking.

As I said before this is as much a performance as it is a recital – or at least it becomes one over the course of the show, which he’s worked on with director Joe Murphy of Nabokov. The swagger and the mannerisms fall away. Wright’s performance is initially one of diagonals. At the start he stands that little bit too close to the front row.  His delivery in close quarters can feel aggressive and he exploits that. He seems to be always leaning. Either back on his heels or forward, towards you, making the most of the space at Summerhall, the curve of the seating, the rake, the flake of the plaster, potential for oratory. When the piece hits its emotional bridge, there’s a transition to free verse, the rhythms become more instinctive, as Nick, now an adult, a journalist, his dreams of writing novels side-lined, meets the man that Johnny has become.  It says so much about idealism and youth and maturity and compromise – and love – and the places life can take you, the incremental sneaky way that years have, of passing.

The earlier and more satirical passages have a more rigid poetic style, a familiar rhythm, an undulation, as Wright revels in the city’s glinting concrete, its Ballard skies.  It’s maybe a twist of the blade too far that Bevan’s childhood home is now the site of an urban festival, a gruesome theme-parking of the city (which feels like a precise and winklepickered kick at the Secret Cinema/Punchdrunk school of urban pop-up culture) but it makes sense to start in this place, in this way; both stylistically and emotionally, it’s a point of embarkation, for both the story – and for Wright.


Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

What I Learned From Johnny Bevan Show Info

Directed by Joe Murphy

Written by Luke Wright

Cast includes Luke Wright




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