Laughter is, of course, a very personal thing; and the Menier's latest show — which is enough to put you off the food you may have just eaten beforehand in the theatre's restaurant — Dinner with Saddam left me gagging in (presumably) unintended ways. But another colleague has given it a five-star rave against the one-star one I've written here, so it obviously hit the sweet spot for him in a way that it clearly didn't for me.
London has just had Hangmen, a pitch-black comedy about hanging and hangmen (which was coincidentally how Saddam would meet his own end), but while Martin McDonagh is a master theatrical craftsman who ratchets up the tensions with impeccable mood and menace, Anthony Horowitz is a writer better known for his work in fiction and television and flounders here badly as he seeks to create a world of theatrical farce.
The subject matter doesn't help, since Saddam Hussein's reign of terror over his own citizens and staff was hardly much of a laughing matter. But it doesn't help that Horowitz simply fails to provide much to laugh about, beyond some fairly base (and obvious) ones that revolve around farting and over-sized turds blocking the toilet.
I'll admit that I did snigger at these. But for the rest of an overlong, undercooked evening, I didn't really know where to look. I felt embarrassed for the actors who had to churn this stuff out, and especially the awkward and embarrassing thug that Steven Berkoff pulls out of his standard box of menacing baddies to play Saddam.
It deals with his unannounced arrival at a family desperately trying to deal with the cut of supplies in pre-invasion Baghdad, and the loss of sanitation and power. The fractious husband and wife — themselves unhappily thrown together by an arranged marriage — are trying to marry their daughter off in turn to a person they've chosen for her, rather than the man she has fallen in love with.
There's an awful lot of exposition to get all of this established; but the show never achieves a comic momentum to make any of it worthwhile.
"A part of me admires Horowitz...for boldly using a popular form to make political points. But he never quite marries the two."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Steven Berkoff brings a strange gravitas to Saddam Hussein but the comedy and the seriousness drown each other out in this production."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press