Soho Theatre, London (****)
With a long and honourable tradition of poking fun at our politics and politicians, James Graham has plundered the back catalogue of popular British comedy and satire to come up with this hilarious, rough and ready but affectionate portrait of one of the stranger phenomenon thrown up by our electoral system, Screaming Lord Sutch.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, Sutch who formed his own Monster Raving Loony Party, was a regular visitor on the election platform, distinctive in multi-coloured garb and top hat.
Like some latter-day Lord of Misrule, he was an insistent reminder of our system’s limitations – and perhaps its glory. In resurrecting his memory in a show high on mischief and subversive adrenalin, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s artistic director, Simon Stokes, co-founder of the Bush Theatre in west London in the 1970s, recaptures some of that same anarchic spirit.
Surrounded by photos and video loops of national celebs in younger days, Stokes marshals a crew of ridiculously talented musicians-actors who summon up household names from Charlie Chaplin to Monty Python via The Goons and even that veritable British institution Punch & Judy in which Mrs Thatcher makes a very funny guest appearance, before pointedly signing off on a return back to Chaplin speaking out against fascism in The Great Dictator.
In all the comic mayhem and Samuel James’ storming rendition of Shirley Bassey, it’s hard to be clear exactly where the show is heading at all times. Graham, responsible for the blissful General Election reality show,The Vote (Donmar) and This House (at the National) has turned into one of our most prolific, sharpest political writers.
Here, his comic exuberance all but overwhelms itself. But there is enough that resonates powerfully with now to make it an evening to cherish: Alf Garnett’s UKIP like slamming immigrants in Till Death Us Do Part, John Cleese and the Two Ronnies’ `I look down on him’ and a wonderful spoof on the old `the sick man of Europe’.
Anyway, who could resist a show that includes bingo, skiffle and raffle give-aways?
A great time had by all, at its heart is the sombre question of identity. Sutch hanged himself on the death of his mother. Who was he really? Who are we?
Vivienne Acheampong: Champagne Charlie and others
Joe Alessi: Max Miller and others
Tom Atwood: The Musician
Joanna Brookes: Mrs Nichols and others
Jack Brown: Lord Snooty and others
Samuel James: Screaming Lord Sutch
Directed by: Simon Stokes
Guest Director: Cal McCrystal
Set & Costume Designer: Bob Bailey
Composer/MD: Tom Attwood
Lighting Designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Associate Lighting Designer: Ian Brown
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Video Designer: Duncan McLean
Casting Director: Stephen Moore
Assistant Director: Chloe Mashiter
Costume Supervisor: Laura Haley
Consultant Producer: Jenny Topper
Monster Raving Loony runs at Soho Theatre to June 18, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, May 2016