On the Page vs On the Stage – Frankie Vah by Luke Wright
– reviewed by James Webster –
What it is?
It’s a one-poet show by Luke Wright, capturing a heady mix of 80s nostalgia, fuck-you attitude and raging punk lyricism. All wrapped up in Wright’s winning stage presence and dextrously wrangled rhymes.
It’s also a book written by Luke Wright and published by Penned in the Margins. It takes us on a rollicking journey on a road of pulsing rhymes, through misspent youth, young love and inevitable grubby crash-and-burn. Artfully unpretentious, the words unravel nicely on the page, just as our protagonist does.
Basically, yeah, it’s a long-ass punky poem that you can consume either as a book or as a theatre show. And in this review/feature, I’m gonna compare the two. With me so far? Then let’s get going…
What’s the plot?
Okay, so it’s a fairly basic rural boy comes to the city to make his slightly artsy fortune type tale, hitting all the familiar tropes along the way (including romance, break-up and hedonism-fuelled break-down).
Our hero, Simon, is an out-of-place punk in a small Essex town (Wright’s own backwater) with a conservative vicar for a dad. He dreams of finding something to believe in, but can never seem to finish anything. He meets a suitably punky, artsy girl, they move to London. Just as they’re finding some success, Si lets it goes to his head and turns into a bit of a prick. And the whole thing unfolds a bit inevitably.
Oh, and along the way, he adopts the stage name “Frankie Vah”, hence the title. I probably should have mentioned that earlier.
If I sound like I didn’t like it, then that’s because I’m being pretty unfair. The plot’s a bit tropey, but it won me over in two ways: 1. it leans into its tropes hard enough that it feels like it’s exploring them and comes across as a bit of a nice tribute/exploration of the setting. 2. it draws a clear parallel with modern politics and my own disaffected millennial generation, and this again makes it feel like it’s saying something more than “punk is good, Thatcher was a bit of a shit, and coming-of-age can be a bit tricky, y’know.”
So what makes it work?
That’s a quite interesting question, actually, thanks for asking (you’re welcome). You see, what made it work for me was quite different on the page as compared to on the stage. Each format showcased different strengths and weaknesses of the piece. So it’s perhaps a better question to ask…
What worked on the page?
The biggest thing that works for me on the page is the variety of style. Reading it in book form, I wasn’t too taken with the opening – oh it trundled along pleasantly enough, but the narrative style, while easy enough to read, didn’t give me too much to grab onto. But when we got onto some of our protagonist’s performance pieces, the clear shift in style on the page is pretty gosh-darned electric.
we are dole queue afternoons
we’re those songs that you hate
we’re those songs without tunes
the rumble in the jungle
misquotes and fumbles
we’re loose but we’re learning
we’re grinding our gears
see that future you’re hoarding
it’s ours, give it here.”
See, right there? There’s something about that repetition and attitude that grabs me by the insides. Even more so on the page than heard out loud, as the change in presentation, the loss of full sentences and ordered stanzas, is more pronounced. The difference between ranter and raconteur is clear, and it’s the ranting that fuels Simon’s story. So when we get to see some, instead of just being told about it, it really works.
Another thing that worked really nicely when reading Frankie Vah, is that the pace builds really nicely. Without performance to worry about, you can let the verse unspool at its own pace and then carry you away with it. The way it tumbles through the dizzying romance, kicks into gear for a bit of raucous punk tour joy, and begins to speed up and break down towards the piece’s climax is grand.
On stage, Wright’s own stage presence and amicable performance almost get in the way of the bare bones beneath it (though it brings its own advantages – see below). In terms of a piece of long-form poetry, it is just very well arranged.
What worked on the stage?
First off, let me just say that Luke Wright is charming. He brings a conversational back-and-forth to the verse that breaks down some of the less natural chunks of verse.
His performance also makes you realise where the jokes are. Which feels a bit mean to say, but genuinely there are some bits of dialogue that seem a little cheesy written down, but are intensely likeable when performed. For example, the exchange when Simon first meets Eve and the romance kicks off:
“Hey, I like your coat
Oh cheers. Ta. Thanks. I like your cherry reds
Only good guys wear DMs… and fascists.
Not that you’re a fascist. I’m not a fascist.
I hate fascists.” She giggled. “Yeah, they’re dicks.”
I found that a bit contrived on the page. Like it needed a bit of space and stage direction to make it work properly. But out loud? Properly winning.
The character works really well in performance too. On paper, you definitely do get a strong idea of Simon’s personality. The tone is strong all the way through – and one of the advantages of leaning so heavily into the tropes is that it makes an easy shorthand for character.
But, well, seeing it on stage gives you a bit more Luke Wright to put Simon Mortimer/Frankie Vah into context. And that brings out the obnoxiousness, the near-puerile self-righteousness, the moments of hypocrisy … and it makes it a feature. This exists on the page, of course, but it feels flatter there and puts me off more easily. On stage, it’s easier to see that, yes, Frankie is a bit of an ass and that’s the point.
This is summed up really nicely in Frankie’s poem about Neil Kinnock.
“…I’m all for being Marxist, mate
But let’s be Karl not Harpo.
We needn’t look like Ubermensch
We needn’t look like Calvin Klein
But let’s look like we’re in Government,
and not Last of the Summer Wine.”
It is very funny, performed with buckets of energy, perhaps the most professional of Frankie’s in-character poems … and it’s performed with just enough of a manic touch to hint at the fall to come.
Another thing that came out great live is the way talking about Kinnock resonates with the current Labour party. The struggle of centreism versus old-school lefties really echoed with this piece when Wright put a bit of character into the dialogue – it felt like I had had those arguments. And probably been just as much of an ass as Frankie (though I’m not convinced either of us is wrong).
The music’s grand too – it adds the pace in performance that the words lose when taken off the page. It still isn’t quite as hell-for-leather racy as it is when it leaps off the page, but it is nice to add a touch of rock’n’roll.
What doesn’t work?
First off, on the page: Simon is less likeable than Luke Wright. Don’t get me wrong, he still retains a bit of charm. But without the performance to undercut his self-righteousness, some of Simon’s early rantings seem at best childish and at worst bloody mean. Especially the rant at his vicar father: “Oh Dad, it always felt like fucking bullshit/ Why believe?”
This plays into the slightly played out nature of the story. While I think that Wright is homaging a classic genre here (rural boy makes a splash in the city amidst a set of bohemian slightly grimy dreamers), for parts of the poem it doesn’t feel like it. For all Wright’s expert word-wrangling, it does occasionally feel like we’ve been here before.
Experienced live, especially, this can make things seem a bit self-indulgent. It’s a rare poet who can get away with trying to take on the trajectory of the classic Ranters.
That said, Luke Wright is gigging with John Cooper Clarke at the moment. So maybe I should shut up and acknowledge he is damn good.
Would you like it?
If you like that kind of classic Britpop/rock’n’roll coming-of-age story, then this is probably up your slightly seedy alley.
If you like tale with excellent word-smithery that takes a simple plot and does it really well, then, yep, totally your cup of jam.
If you think you’d enjoy an hour being told good words by a man whose stage presence is charming as heck, then I can confirm that this is such a man.
If this sounds good, then it’s well worth grabbing a ticket for the upcoming tour.
Or, if you’d rather enjoy it on the page, then maybe put on a playlist of classic 80s indie thumpers and let the narrative torrent over you in a wave of punky angst, alcohol-soaked euphoria and rock’n’roll politics.