[Review:] TONY’S LAST TAPE, Omnibus Theatre, London.
As the audience unfurl into the studio, they are met with a desk swamped with boxes and papers, and a bookcase stacked with books on Tony Benn which later find themselves in Philip Bretherton's (playing Tony) hands, leaking into the space. Bretherton then enters through a door at the back of the stage holding a mug, wobbling towards the desk.
Immediately, the set has clearly and effectively put us in the study of a mature intellectual gentleman, but there is also a sense of homeliness; this is not a typical working office. For this, the set design was successful, if a little static, especially with one dominant lighting state. Though my attention is drawn to that egocentric collection of books. With the crowded desk and bookcase, we have an image of Tony Benn being surrounded by his own intellectual work — which is, of course, congruous with the plot which sees Tony reflecting on achievements, memoirs and histories — but already there is a sense of self-importance, arrogance and saintliness, a notion which I shall return to towards the end of this review. It is worth noting here that all of these books had the same two covers, further intensifying this arrogance. It is important to carefully consider, if this was not, and I imagine it was not, the intended impact, that everything put on stage has significance and meaning and should not be seen as haphazard or for ease.
I did mention that this set was rather static, but certain scenes, e.g. the mimetic use of the torch and the changing of the lightbulb during the power cut, helped to displace and refocus the spectator’s otherwise stationary gaze. However, this stasis meant that momentum relied heavily on dialogue and also tech.
Before I continue to the writing, however, I shall first talk about characterisation. Bretherton's characterisation provided a quirky and idiosyncratic reading of Tony Benn’s personality. The manner in which he spoke, his voice and intonation, seemed uncannily similar to and representative of the real Tony Benn’s. His fragile, feeble and jittery physicality was charming as well as piteous, though I am not sure how representative this was of Benn himself who, as far as I can tell, was rather stable in his mobility until the end of his life.
There were a few moments that could have been made clearer. One of these is centred primarily around Bretherton's sight line and mode of address. Until the middle of the play, I had not realised that Tony was recording his memoirs into the dictaphone; instead, I read this as Tony speaking to his late wife, Caroline, in a spiritual or reflective manner — either that or an overt soliloquy. I thought this because Bretherton's eyes simply remained fixated upon the desk until every so often where he addressed his soliloquies to the audience. There was no introduction to what he was actually doing. This is a major problem. A quick salutation at the beginning to introduce this dictation or a more decisive and less ‘floaty’ address would have solved this problem. I only realised the real intention of this when Tony began flipping the tapes, leaning forward and addressing the dictaphone directly. Furthermore, with scenes such as the ‘seat-case’ scene, it is difficult to gauge if certain narratives are flashbacks or more dictated anecdotes. This distinction would have been facilitated by a change in lighting state.
On to the writing (Andy Barrett). The writing for this play was appropriately anecdotal. Barrett successfully captured the vulnerability and soft, intimate side of an otherwise powerful and opaque public figure, and his writing is certainly endearing and potent. There is a sense of relatability as we see the personal reflections and humanly quotidian of a now somewhat elusive persona. However, without the few displacements that I mentioned earlier, the structure is rather monotonous and heavy. Whilst the vast majority of the text is reflective and essentially nostalgic, there are moments that seem intrinsically different. These moments depict Benn as preachy and dictator-like. Whilst the real Benn himself was definitely strong-willed, outspoken and a definite leader, this aspect seems out of place in the setting of this particular play as he is leaving his memoirs for his children. Perhaps this recurrent and severe change was due to characterisation and was heavier than intended, but this seems not to be the case.
I believe this vulnerability and lovability of Tony Benn was perhaps a little over-romanticised, both through the writing and characterisation but even through the set. The play certainly fixated upon his peculiarities and eccentricities as he marvels at outmoded apparatuses, rummages for breakfast bananas, and fumbles along the stage in a ‘Say NO Poll Tax 1381’ T-shirt concealed by a robe. I also mentioned earlier in this review Bretherton's use of the torch during the power cut, and this was accompanied by a short sequence of childish mime. These elements noted, I cannot be sure how much of Tony’s figure is rooted in authentic, factual and biographical material and how much is an imagination or glorification of a politician who, so it seems, shares the same views as the play’s creators. The writing constantly shifts focus from anecdotal to political, and not in a cohesive, fluid manner. It is difficult to understand the reason for the focus of this character and the objective of the play. Is this the representation of an interpretation of a political figure or is Tony Benn being used as a vehicle for airing political matters?
I sense that these conflicting representations are perhaps a matter of secondhand experience through media and written representations of the real Tony Benn. Whilst I understand that it is impossible to separate Benn from his political engagements and hence believe that these should feature in his representation, I think that there is a tension in whether the dramatic text is a voice of didacticism or of partial celebration and reminiscence.
This play definitely appealed to a maturer audience with the reception of dialectical, ironic or comedic references being subjective to experience. For these visibly avid spectators, the play seemed to be highly successful and powerful both in its content and delivery. Perhaps I am a little biased in my reviewing, but judging the play on the performance’s execution, coherency and technical efficacy alone, I can only let surface any inconsistencies or irregularities, those which I have mentioned.