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'Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical' review – this puppet-based satire mainly preaches to the converted

Read our three-star review of Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical, now in performances at the Phoenix Theatre to 26 August.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Can it really be nearly 40 years since Spitting Image first arrived on British TV, its wickedly satiric sketches (with puppets to match) skewering everything in its wake? I shan’t ever forget the parodic fun they had with Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name just one of a slew of targets that tended as often as not to come from the world of politics: the world of Private Eye made flesh – well, in latex terms, at least.

Now comes Spitting Image The Musical, boasting the add-on title Idiots Assemble as if to cue a response that most playgoers will surely have figured out for themselves.

The question is: what value a theatre evening comprised of the sort of material that these days can be approximated with a single well-aimed social media broadside or meme? Many a Twitter feed brings together an all-too-obvious assemblage of idiots, which puts the likes of director and co-writer Sean Foley’s show at risk of redundancy. His co-writers are Matt Forde and Al Murray, who must be scrambling daily to keep up with the news.

So it is that I spent much of the first act quietly groaning, first at the idea that so venerable a part of this country’s cultural zeitgeist should now require trigger warnings. (How times have changed.) And also that we need to be informed at the start that the show respects nothing – except, one could argue, better behaviour from the public figures who are pilloried during it.

As if to begin from an unimpeachable height out of reach to most of the figures on view, we find Ian McKellen in ripely Shakespearean form leading us into a narrative (if one can call it that) having to do with knitting up a society coming apart at the seams over which an uneasy Charles must now rule. Cue dirty Y-fronts as the visual correlative.

A diminutive Tom Cruise descends from above to help with a mission that really is impossible even if this is one film star, we’re told, who doesn’t do allegory or metaphor. That’s hardly a problem given the blunt instruments of a cut-and-thrust that weds “Circle of Life” from The Lion King to an assortment of royals seen alternately leafing through Asian Babes magazine or partnering Paddington Bear on a bespoke version of “We Will Rock You”.

“The hustle never stops,” Meghan Markle, all glistening teeth, remarks to a onetime prince of a husband who at every turn is seen plugging his memoir, Spare. Cruise, meanwhile, forsakes poetic language to dismiss the UK as “a total shithole”, while Presidents Xi and Putin look on from a side box. There’s a number, “Putin’ on the Blitz”, that you certainly won’t find in Peter Morgan’s Patriots down the road, the other London show just now to afford the Russian leader a voice.

Twelve puppeteers, led by Will Palmer as captain, keep the celebs coming, some of them (Ed Sheeran, Lin-Manuel Miranda) gone from view almost before we have clocked them. Greta Thunberg dashes up the aisle as a late arrival from Sweden (I guess her plane was delayed), and I laughed out loud at a flatulent Rupert Murdoch who is heard pondering when he might die.

The musical component couples standards like “Je Ne Regrette Rien” – a duet for (who else?) BoJo and Rishi Sunak – with an original score by Alexander Bermange. The Met police are lambasted for their racism, and Lizzi Gee’s choreography includes a line-up of dancing penises because – well, it’s that kind of show. (The aforementioned sequence is in fact far less tasteless than a rifle-toting Volodymyr Zelenskyy number that doesn’t land at all.)

At the interval, I really was wondering how much more of this was necessary, especially when the prevailing animus is busy preaching to the converted, as I suspect will be the case for many. Luckily, the second act is livelier and less predictable, even if it’s no surprise to find Margaret Thatcher – the Spitting Image mother ship if ever there was one – saved for the bilious finale.

You have to hand it to all involved for communicating a gathering fury that has presumably only been amplified by the carryings-on in the public sphere (step up, Nicola Sturgeon and Suella Braverman, the latter glimpsed here in evident need of an exorcist). Such misdeeds have only redoubled since the production began this past winter in Birmingham.

The show makes trenchant use of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” – the admonitory Cabaret number that has been provocatively co-opted by Spitting Image before. If this parade of people really does represent the future, we will need the refuge allowed by art more than ever.

Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical is at the Phoenix Theatre through 26 August.

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Photo credit: Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical (Photo by Mark Senior)

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