A familiar coming-of-age tale, of a young man developing his artistic identity at university in the shadow of an intoxicatingly brilliant companion, is set alight with poetry. The flaming words dance and splutter and new shapes in this well-trodden story appear, ferociously growing from something we all recognise. Stripped down to its main components, What I Learned From Johnny Bevan consists of friendship, politics and identity, and the way in which age plays a vital role in shaping all three. It is poet Luke Wright’s ability to spin words with nuance and skill that embellished these well-known tropes, making them seem fresh and urgent.
What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is a one-man show, written and performed by Wright, which seduced Edinburgh last year and is now hitting regional spots. Currently housed in the Soho Theatre, Wright’s rhapsodic offering feels particularly suitable in the district, which has suffered a slow cultural death thanks to the upward mobility noticeable on the streets where venues like Madame JoJo’s used to reside. Wright’s tale of gentrification, political unrest and youthful longing adds commentary to this ongoing conversation.
He plays Nick Burton, a would-be novelist and now arts journalist living in London. We first meet Nick during a press visit to an ‘urban festival’ situated inside an ex-council estate that is now far removed from its prior purpose. The visit prompts him to recall a defining friendship between himself and a resident of the estate, Johnny Bevan.
He is first seduced by Bevan in the delivery of his explosive poem, ‘Tea with the Tories’. In a crowded pub with newly acquired faceless university mates, Nick is transfixed by a sudden burst of angry words on stage. It is his first real encounter with the cultural haven he hoped to find at university. A siren song for Nick, it is also a real highlight of Wright’s show, which is met in this instance by a warm round of applause and cheers. Other than literary discovery, Bevan also demonstrates a world of political urgency that Nick is drawn to. The highlight of this is Tony Blair’s rise to power as the leader of ‘New Labour’ in 1997, promising to govern for every single part of the nation, claiming the decent hard-working majority of the British people could now find a voice.
The irony is that Johnny Bevan is blessed with words, yet the countless disappointments that blemished Blair’s time in office work to create a mockery of Bevan’s youthful belief in New Labour. Nick and Johnny’s relationship partially reflects the problematic nature of Blair’s reign. Tainted by age and experience, their youthful dreams are nullified and each sets out on a different course. By the time they are reunited over a decade later, Nick’s lethargic carer as an arts journalist bores Johnny, and in turn the once golden boy now mattress-surfer disappoints Nick. Johnny appears to have been suffocated by the silencing grip of a leader who trampled on his aspirations.
What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is a formally brilliant show, with a charming performance from Wright, who dips in and out of accent and voice with ease. Though much of the venom is located in activity that happened over a decade ago, the content seems as relevant as ever.
What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is playing at the Soho Theatre until 12 March. For tickets and further information, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo: Giuseppe Cerone