'We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us': John Keats' self-assured proclamation is nakedly emblazoned across two large projection screens, flanking Luke Wright. In Essex boy twangs, jiggling from foot to nervy foot, he repeats the phrase with rising incredulity, before slamming our country's most revered poet for being such a narrow-minded liar. Wright's balladry is overflowing with 'palpable design', from the thinly veiled political leanings of The Ballad of Dudley Livinstone (a particular chortle-inducer given the current climate), to the delicate messages of love and ambition in The Ballad of Chris and Ann's Fish Shop, but his denouncement of all things lacking palpable design at such an early stage in the proceedings- not to mention the searing self-awareness that accompanies it- makes it very difficult to criticise his decision to wield poetic propaganda all over us.
Likeability is one of Wright's strongest cards, and boy does he play it well. If you huff, puff and bemoan the very existence of live poetry- for Guardian readers and emotion perverts, do I hear you cry?- Luke Wright will challenge every un-believing bone in your body. With a voice that is - albeit resonant and pleasant- not unlike a voice you'd expect to hear excelling on the market-stall round of The Apprentice, he adopts an approach to entertainment that is at once educational, riotously fun, and heart-wrenchingly emotional. He's like the English teacher you always wish you'd had- or at least the kind that could 'own' young whippersnappers in any rap battle. Wright skillfully leads his audience through the historical arc of the ballad- beginning with iambic pentameter, and ending with Christina Aguilera. The message is clear from the start: the ballad was intended for the man on the street, and that is where it should remain. Hence, we are entertained with narrative goodies about 'Topman checks and Richard Hammond dreams', Xfactor contestant Melody, 'who had none', middle class families suffering not merely 'affluenza', but 'affluAIDs', and fat boys with fat appetites for violence and burgers.
The whole show is accompanied by illustrations by Sam Ratcliffe. I don't know if his parents have told him yet, but Ratcliffe is undoubtedly the love child of Quentin Blake and Tim Burton, with doodles that would give your children delicious nightmares dripping in chip fat and smothered in gore. They are the perfect accompaniment to Wright's ballads, which are reminiscent at times of Roald Dahl on a particularly deviant day. The concoction of Ratcliffe and Wright's talents ensure that these Cynical Ballads are a well-rounded piece of theatre.
At times, Wright does appear to have an unwarranted chip on his shoulder, sometimes fuelling further comic class comparisons, but occasionally working to his detriment, as the bile-spitting bias becomes a little too unfounded. At times, his desire for sentimental gravitas becomes a little overpowering too- while the Ballad of Chris and Ann's Fish Shop pulls on your heartstrings in all the right ways, Wright's closing number- a singalong affair, backtracked by folksy wails and mournful guitars- sounds like a middle class version of The Streets (which is, unfortunately, not really a good thing), and slathers on the emotion with a bit too much zeal.
'Alternative' is not a word I want to use when talking about Luke Wright. Alternative suggests avant-garde inaccessibility, hipster experiments funded by Daddy's credit card, unitards and wigs. Wright's balladry is certainly alternative, but this show wraps up his alternative ramblings in a sheen of pop culture and boy-next-door accessibility. It's a corker- just don't bother if you're a Telegraph-reading, Boris-voting tax dodger.
Luke Wright's Cynical Ballads is at the Soho Theatre