Luke Wright’s jovial demeanour and impressive word hoard sit at odds with his smudged eyeliner and black leather jacket. The unassuming performance poet skulks to the mic, breathes, then unleashes a torrent of verbal acrobatics snapshotting British everymen and women. From a Georgian dine and dasher, to a bloke from Essex who swears he saw a lion roaming a campground, Wright’s depictions bring these characters to life. His dexterity and character-driven performance has a theatricality missing from most performance poetry, but the polished story present in What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is notably absent in The Toll.
A collection of poems with informally delivered context in between makes The Toll feel more like a music gig than a theatre piece. There is no throughline from one poem to the next, though they are thematically linked by social class, aspiration and Middle England. Each one has scope for an extended story, particularly final piece, ‘The Toll’. It tells of a girl growing up watching the Dartford toll, wishing she was one in one of the cars driving away to mystery and adventure. When she finishes school at 16 and gets a job in one of the toll booths, it’s far from the excitement she imagines. The highlight of the performance is deservedly last, though the character is sold short by brevity.
There’s an existential despair present in some of the poems that filters through characters trapped by cycles of poverty. Wright wears his socialism on his sleeve, but it’s not something that is overtly present throughout. His characters are often proudly working class and richly depicted; endowing them with a rich vocabulary makes them come alive. There are some tangential wonderings particularly in his transitional chatter, but he largely sticks to topics close to those in the poems.
Wright is a phenomenal poet and performer, but The Toll lacks the punch of his most recent touring production. Closer to performance poetry than a piece of theatre, the ode to England and it’s people lacks the satisfaction of narrative continuity.
The Toll tours through 26 July.
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