Tony’s Last Tape
Reviewed – 4th April 2019
“through this richly observed production it’s poignant to realise the heady positions of influence reached by Benn”
It was occasionally said of Tony Benn that he could make something you passionately disagree with sound perfectly reasonable. The charm with which he expresses his controversial convictions has been fulsomely archived in thousands of hours of recordings, nine volumes of diaries not to mention his own one man shows. So, Andy Barrett’s one man play Tony’s Last Tape imagining how the last of Benn’s home recording sessions might have proceeded, sits in a curious space, fictionalising the well-documented. Commissioned by the Nottingham Playhouse in 2015, a year after Benn’s death, it is likely to have originated as a homage and Rachael Jacks’ detailed set design sustains the theory. A loving reconstruction of Benn’s study, featuring a desk covered in papers, pipes and an array of recording devices is surrounded by boxes, cabinets and bookshelves laden with memoirs and projects, all awash with nostalgic blue-yellow light (Martin Curtis).
The portrayal of the doddery 88-year-old himself, in slippers, dressing gown and Poll Tax demo tee-shirt, is affectionate and masterfully delivered. Philip Bretherton manages to capture Benn’s contorted splay of elbows and thumbs as he starts his pipe, the finger-wagging and chin-jutting, to perfection. The script just as skilfully renders Benn’s vocal style, a combination of moral certainty and loquacity. For those unlikely to find time to listen to hours of original ‘Benn tapes’ the play provides a handy biography. Running at seventy five minutes it fits in details of Benn’s private life, the loss of his brother in wartime and his wife to cancer amongst a comprehensive range of his greatest hits, career achievements, memories and meetings by means of an apparently rambling but supremely well-constructed narrative.
Giles Croft’s direction simplifies and amplifies his subject, sometimes reducing him to a sardonic figure, other times hectoring. While it’s possible to suggest that Benn may have ended up privately disillusioned in this way, the script itself doesn’t. Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing show; by accident or design, these performances coincide with daily vilifications of Benn’s modern-day counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn, which add topical resonance to the audience experience. The parallels are unavoidable in their principled dislike of the EU and as well as their subversive style. Indeed, Corbyn was involved in the incident cited in the play where the pair ‘vandalised’ the Houses of Parliament chapel with a plaque commemorating suffragette Emily Wilding Davison.
It remains to be seen whether Corbyn ends up like Benn, a National Treasure, but through this richly observed production it’s poignant to realise the heady positions of influence reached by Benn, despite being reviled.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Robert Day
Tony’s Last Tape
Omnibus Theatre until 20th April
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: