Slick, insightful, and exceptionally funny: critically acclaimed poet Luke Wright’s The Toll is a powerful reading of selected poems from his second collection.
Following the success of the Fringe First winning production, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan, Wright theatrically invigorates his work with a unique vitality, bringing language that already brims with richness on the page to new heights when performed.
In my experience, it is rare to really relax at a spoken word event. Rather like at a comedy show, watching something so intensely personal normally generates, for the first fifteen minutes at least, a slight sense of unease – the silent yet urgent collective will for the act to succeed. Yet from the outset, with Luke Wright, the audience is in eminently safe hands: from his dramatic diction, witty patter, and unfaltering linguistic flair, Wright oozes professionalism, deftly guiding us by turns through humour, heartache, and Georgian history.
Situated on the corner of a leafy, residential street in Kentish Town, The Lion & Unicorn Theatre space is relatively small with a cosy, informal atmosphere. Though Wright’s formidable stage presence could have easily carried a room many times the size, the intimacy of the venue for this show seems somehow apt: the stage is unfurnished except for a large, inviting sofa, and Wright and his supporting act, Maria Ferguson, are warmly introduced by one of Wright’s close friends.
Ferguson first performs a selection of poems, including some new material as well as several pieces from her celebrated collection Fat Girls Don’t Dance. Despite grappling with sensitive personal issues in her work, Ferguson’s candid, charismatic presence provided an entertaining introduction to the show. Berocca, for example, a recently completed poem that she performed for the first time, explores the disparity between apparent physical wellness and hidden unhappiness – or, as she self-effacingly describes, “it’s about Berocca, but it’s not… Poetry!”
Yet Ferguson is somewhat overshadowed by Wright’s punchy, dynamic display of linguistic virtuosity, energy, and impeccable storytelling. His approach to language is at once whimsical and refined, epitomised by his ventures in ‘single vowel poetry’, which combine a playful appreciation of sounds, inference, and innuendo with a tremendous amount of discipline. ‘Essex Lion’, the story of the imagined sighting of a lion in Clacton last summer also deserves praise for its wholehearted, hilarious celebration of a great British non-event.
This overriding humorous tone was, however, regularly punctuated with poignant tales of loss and tenderness. The titular piece is a bittersweet coming-of-age describing a young woman’s yearning to escape her tumultuous family life via the Dartmouth Toll, and Wright also includes a short but profoundly lovely homage to his young son. Yet he flits so gracefully between farcical and serious, commentary and ridicule that the audience is ever strung along with him, and thoroughly entertained throughout.
The Toll is touring across England until 26 July. For more information and tickets, see lukewright.co.uk/the-toll.