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Luke Wright: Cynical Ballads

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Luke Wright is serious about his legacy in the rich history of balladeers, boasting: ‘Swift, Pope… now it’s my turn’.

In Cynical Ballads, this assured young poet gives us a history of the form, as well as his contributions to it. Only latterly has the word been associated with song, as its true roots are in narrative verse – the Ballad Of Reading Gaol, for instance. And the most influential type of ballad influencing Wright here are the so-called broadside ballads, penny-sheets from the 16th to 19th centuries that broke the news of the day, often about gruesome executions, in rhyme.

Breaking news might now be best left to Twitter rather than the poets, but Wright paints a picture of 21st Century Britain through a series of seven extended ballads, each about a modern archetype, from the talentless X-Factor contestant to the Tory grandees, aloof on their country estate.

Such characters may be familiar, but Wright’s skilled in detailing them isn’t. Poets make their words dance, he says, and his are hoofing away like the Moulin Rouge chorus-line, whether it’s describing the ‘peroxide oompah-loompah girls dribbling their kebabs’ or the twee horsey villages that are all ‘Agas, Barbours and Trollope sagas’.

Subtitled Seven Caustic Tales From Broken Britain, Wright’s character sketches are often downbeat, similar in tone to the cult Monkey Dust animation of the mid-2000s. A couple of the ballads are particularly bleak, especially the one detailing sink-estate brutality, while others are depressing more for what they say about the iniquitous system; from the landed gentry haw-hawing as the oiks get poorer, to the Boris-alike Dudley Livingstone, hiding his rabid right-wing views behind charming bluster.

A touch of lightness comes from Mr & Mrs P Cartwight – the ‘extreme SKIers’, Spending the Kids’ Inheritance. ‘You’ve heard of affluenza,’ Wright says of their cosy middle-class lifestyle. ‘Well this was affli-Aids’. Yet there’s a grim Roald Dahl-style sting in this tale of gleeful profligacy.

Although his words do a perfectly fine job in describing the folk in his yarns, what really brings them to life are the beautifully scribbled illustrations of Sam Ratcliffe, providing a distinctive and stylishly dystopian backdrop to the poetry, complementing it perfectly. They are the backbone of a splendidly put-together production, which also includes a haunting tune and Wright’s own simple, but thought-through, wardrobe.

Away from the verse, Wright can come across as a little precocious and smug, but in the poetry, he shows how he’s earned his status. The only mistake, possibly, is to consider this comedy. For although it’s billed as ‘darkly comic’, Cynical Ballads definitely has the emphasis on the adverb, not the adjective. Wright has a wryly witty turn of phrase, and the occasional funny line, but this impresses for its poignant literacy, not for its chuckle count.

Review date: 21 Jan 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Leicester Square Theatre

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