Review: Frankie Vah takes the Fringe

Luke Wright's explosive play takes us into the dilemmas of the eighties left and helps tell the story of where we are today.

Neal Lawson
15 August 2017
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Every generation thinks ‘their’ decade is the one. Mine was the 1980s and funnily enough it was ‘the decade’. It was of course a ten-year span of Margaret, the Malvinas, Miners, Militant and Morrissey. While the 1960s threw off post war gloom and the 1970s merely acted as the start of the break down, the 1980s was the decade of polarization. It was raw. It was riots. It was Red Wedge. It was the start of now almost four decades of free market fundamentalism, of cash, capitalism and chaos.

Today in August 2017, Luke Wright, the Essex poet takes us back to that tumultuous decade in both content and style in the shape of his breathtaking, exhausting and uplifting play Frankie Vah. In particular Wright takes us back to Labour and polarization of the party as the left/right spilt, that had always been a feature, became a chasm and dramatically shapes Labour now. Wright has form when it comes to poems about Labour, his What I learned from Johnny Bevan won awards and is a searing insight in to the disappointment that was New Labour. In Frankie Vah he takes the political content up to 11 on the Spinal Tap amp. 

It’s 1987 and an aspiring young poet Simon Mortimer has flunked out of Uni, changes his name to Frankie Vah in the vein that Johnny Lydon to Johnny Rotten and goes on tour with an indie rock band against the backdrop of that years general election. Through spitfire verse and hurricane prose Wright weaves together the music, events and politics of the moment, focusing in on Labour and Neil Kinnock as the tour and the election heat up.  

Wright, who is in his mid thirties, is too young to have experienced this explosive era directly. I did, and he gets the details and the sentiment of the events spot on.  Nothing jars. The conference decisions, the leadership speeches and the policy moves. He opens up the soul of Labour as the battle between power and principle are played out on stage.

Frankie Vah is a love story on two levels – of his relationship with his artist girlfriend and how it degenerates with all the temptation and distraction of a life on the road. But it is a story about the love of Labour, of hope, authenticity and belief. Frankie watches Labour shift to the right in search of votes and is horrified. He loses his love and his Labour. But does he learn about either? What Wright invites us to consider is a third way – not between capitalism and social democracy but between the paradoxical values of principle and power, the need to see grey and not just black and white, the need to connect with those you don’t agree with to learn, adapt and be empathetic. Frankie, like Labour, needs to grow up.

Labour in the 1980s was too rocked by Thatcherism and too seduced by marketing to understand let alone manage the paradoxes of a politics in which pragmatism became dirty word. The left spilt between hard and soft and allowed the careerists and those without any form of compass through to the top. The hard left, incredibly, toughed it out and have earned their reward at the helm of Labour. But control and belief are never enough without deep cultural roots in which meaningful alliance for change can be made.  

Wright does live poetry performances within the play – as Frankie takes to the stage but gets nowhere near Hollywood, spitting out anti-Thatcher bile in the fashion of the punk poets of the day – only better. Frankie Vah is an hour in which you are transported back to the moment in which the faultiness of the politics of today were first formed. Wright memorizes and mesmerizes in equal measure. Unlike Ed Miliband no important sections of the play are forgotten. He leaves you spell bound, a storyteller and performer at the top of his game. 

Luke Wright is performing Frankie Vah at the Underbelly on Cowgate at the Edinburgh Fringe and is then touring The Toll.

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