It’s easy to get lulled by the constant flow of shows at the Fringe, to give in the mid-afternoon slump and the heavy-eyed semi-slumber. At times like this, what is needed is a play that shocks you upright; that makes your heart beat faster, that punches you right in the chest.
What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is what I come to the Fringe for.
Harking back to an older time of socially-aware spoken word, this stream-of-consciousness poetry-play takes us back to the mid-Nineties through the memories of Nick, an embittered newspaper hack snapped back to his student days and formative friendship with the titular Johnny by the discovery that an important part of his youth has fallen victim to the hipster-chic of modern media London.
Luke Wright’s verse is the star of this show and we are carried effortlessly along by the swooping flows, vivid pictures and twisting internal rhymes of the lines that pour from him with nary a breath taken. As Jonny, Wright's snarling punk-politic poet patter carries with it an energy and rage as sharp as the jangling chords that provide its backing track; as Nick, the starry-eyed admiration and love he has for his spikily-charismatic friend lifts us, balancing the cynicism with pure joy. Finally, Nick's sadness over the drifting of his friendship with Johnny brings with it a pang for the lost passion of youth - a universal theme for older audience members and a salutary warning for the young.
What makes this play particularly affecting is its timeliness. In Johnny we’re reminded of a long-dormant need in the British public - the memory of a time when politics was more vivid before the beige apathy of the new Millennium set in, when people truly believed that their vote and their voice made a difference. The twin paths Johnny and Nick take as they are increasingly disappointed by Blair’s New Labour, one selling out, one burning out, give us a glimpse at two ways we could react to the current situation and ask us to choose which represents a life truly lived for us.
A densely-packed and deftly-woven banner for young Britain's political reawakening, What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is what I come to the Fringe for: writing that not only captures you in the theatre but also stays with you for days afterwards.