DramaLondonReviewWest End

What I Learned from Johnny Bevan – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Luke Wright
Director: Joe Murphy
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott


1997 was a pivotal year in British politics – the year New Labour swept to power and issue-based campaigning was seemingly replaced with spin, image and celebrity-endorsed government. But at the time, it felt like Britain was going through a renaissance, when important, far-reaching change would occur, a shift to the left that was going to alter the fabric of society. Luke Wright’s new show at the Soho Theatre examines the consequences of all that hope in the story of two young men wanting to set the world to rights.

Nick is from a cosy middle-class family destined to become a lawyer, but at university he meets Johnny Bevan, a working-class lad from a tough East End estate who introduces him to a world of political, literature and diversity. In the aftermath of New Labour’s election victory their closeness falters and years later the adult Nick discovers what became of his old pal, and his youthful ideals.

Luke Wright’s one-man show is in many ways an extraordinary piece of work that in the space of one-hour tells a fully realised story while taking the audience comfortably back and forth in time, as it moves between the present day, 1996 and 1997. It’s a highly politicised piece that, on one level is scathing about the failure of politics, and particularly of the Labour party, to represent working people, while also cleverly showing the cyclical nature of apathy, as once ardent individuals find their passion for politics is dulled by the distractions of their day-to-day lives.

Wright is excellent at capturing both the voices of the more innocent Nick, whose eyes are opened by his knowledgeable friend, and of Johnny whose equitable views, at first, seem so sensible but soon decline into the chip-on-the-shoulder rantings of a man betrayed by his heroes who just likes to fight. Similarly, the enthusiasm of youth and especially that wave of change that swept Britain in the 90s is felt strongly throughout, while Wright mixes poetry with fast-paced prose delivery to create moments of crescendo and calm that are extremely engaging.

Its urban feel is reiterated in sketchy projections of key locations, and while Nick describes his first meeting with Johnny saying “a tapestry of British life poured out”, the same is true of this whole production as Wright humorously skewers the modern obsession with fame above art, describing PR girls as being like “the Duchess of Cambridge but better at Twitter,” and wryly talking about a hoped-for gentrification in 1997 that has taken a rather different course in modern London.

At times perhaps this veers into a rant that steps out of the story for too long, and the whole context will probably have considerably less meaning for those too young to really remember that verve around that Labour victory, but What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is so cleverly constructed that you want to know what happens to these characters long after the play has ended. It’s a good story but also a sharp stock-take of societal change in the last 19 years arguing that politics doesn’t really represent anyone anymore, and asking if we have enough fight left to change that?

Runs until12 March 2016 | Image:Giuseppe Cerone

Related article: What Luke Wright learned from Johnny Bevan

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