Phoenix Theatre, London
Written by Al Murray, Matt Forde and Sean Foley
Directed by Sean Foley
Back in the 1980s Spitting Image was a ground-breaking TV series that brilliantly satirised the politicians and celebrities of the day with ingeniously caricatured latex puppets and scripts that mocked all. It was the time of Margaret Thatcher, in turn followed by John Major and it was also a time when to offend was a sacrosanct part of British comedy, political correctness having barely been invented.
Each episode of that show lasted for 30 minutes, short enough to keep writers on their toes with scripts and gags honed to razor-sharp accuracy and all rounded off each week with a punchy musical number that spoofed some hit record of the time with more top-notch irreverence. Peter Fluck and Roger Law were the series' sculpting geniuses whose eyes for ridiculing the great and the not-so-great was peerless. Law lends his name and his vision to this current iteration as Caricaturist Supremo and superficially at least, his inspired vision lingers on.
But a 30-minute blast of Spitting Image on the telly was to prove the medium’s perfect time slot. In a full blown West End musical, two hours proves to be too long to sustain what should otherwise be a series of brilliant jokes.
To be fair, the show’s first act has moments of platinum-plated comedy. The Royals (as was the case back in the day) get treated mercilessly by the writers, who even include an affectionately portrayed ghost of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The recently crowned King Charles III is royally ridiculed as are his sons, wife and brother Andrew and rightly so. Politicians from across the global political spectrum are on the production’s hit list, with a musical number from the Russian President, Putin On The Blitz (geddit?) being perhaps the evening’s lyrical triumph. The first half’s penultimate song has a latex Carrie Johnson leading a chorus of dancing six-foot phalli in All Men Think With Their Dicks, before a line-up of the Tory leadership sing Cabaret's chilling Tomorrow Belongs To Me while the aforementioned penises, complete with winking meatuses, ejaculate skeins of long white paper streamers before the half-time curtain falls. The smuttiest knob-gag in town, but very funny.
The second half however descends into a drawn-out charade of the already thinly-stretched plot-lines worsened by a political bias that transcends all satire and morphs into a tiresome, shallow rant. The musical's incongruous nods to the TV show's all grey John Major and all-powerful Thatcher characters were appreciated by the mostly greying audience, and the ghost-Queen’s closing number of Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think was a neat touch, as was her being accompanied by Brian May. But they were too little, too late.
Script aside - the show is a work of impressive theatrical wizardry with the programme listing a massive technical crew. On stage in each performance, twelve puppeteers make the latex live, perfectly synching their movements to the pre-recorded dialogue and music and as should be the way with all good puppet-based shows, those dozen or so humans “disappear” from our conscious vision and we only see the characters they are animating. Equally Alexander Bermange has done a fine job with the show’s recorded backing music.
The bus pass brigade will likely enjoy this mostly anodyne fayre, but Spitting Image died a natural TV death a long time ago. It should have been allowed to rest in peace.
Runs until 26th August