A tremendous performance from Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn in Tony’s Last Tape, a new one-man play from Nottingham playwright Andy Barrett. Also a real coup for Bridge House Theatre producer Rob Harris to bag such a prestigious transfer from Nottingham Playhouse after its recent successful run in their Neville Studio. Tony Benn only died last March having been ill for 2 years after suffering a stroke in 2012, and of course as the nation decides, a dramatic portrait of a 20th century political heavyweight is particularly appropriate at this time.
The play opens with a very elderly ‘Tony’(Antony Neil Wedgwood) Benn shuffling slowly and unsteadily through a door clad in a clashing check gents dressing gown over a ‘No Poll Tax 1382’ old tee-shirt clutching a large mug of tea which he stops to drink from as he makes snail-like progress to his desk. It is the middle of the night, he cannot sleep and is clearly frustrated contemplating life and mortality and his dual persona as ‘dangerous’ and ‘national treasure’. He switches a large reel-to-reel player on top of the filing cabinet on which turns throughout the entire play. It takes him a while to find his tobacco, pipe and lighter, musing how excessive potassium in bananas will finally kill him off rather than nicotine, sugar or caffeine. It also takes him a while to decide which tape recorder to use on his desk to record his ‘last tape’.
Director Giles Croft has re-staged his original production in the even smaller intimate space at Bridge House and the audience is truly in Tony’s cluttered characterful study with him, reading every book title on his shelves and feet away from piercing eyes and a voice that ranges from wistful mutterings to passionate declarations. Stirring stuff indeed. Croft has directed with meticulous detail and clever effects which echo momentous historical events – this is no dry diary reminiscence. In Bretherton he has an actor who inhabits his character. His eyes dart, sink, stare, close, think and laugh. His posture changes as he orates with such thrilling power, and then shrivels as his body gives in to near nine decades of wear, but then finds it’s youthful self in reminiscence once again. “…all I needed was a different voice”. He even struggles to actually get on to his desk, stand and reach to change a light bulb! Oh the irony! A former Minister of Technology who can’t do DIY! A tiny torch light illuminates his face in the darkness and the torch then becomes a screwdriver, nailing ‘illegal’ plaques that still remain into House of Commons walls, delighting in their dedications to ALL who work within the building and also to Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison who hid in a broom cupboard there in 1911.
In just 75 minutes we travel back to Tony Benn as a 1940s WWII air pilot, Nagasaki, 1950s and 60s Labour Party giants, Rhodesia, Russia, cheese, Nuclear weapons, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Miners, resignation, Thatcher, Christianity, Jim Callahan ( convinced that ‘socialism really does work’ after visiting Czechoslovakia) Mandelson, New Labour. We are also privy to personal struggles with privacy and media intrusion and harassment of his children, hatred of book signings, personal joy & sorrow of a happy marriage followed by loneliness after his beloved wife Caroline’s death, and a restless spirit still searching for the right quote for a memorial service for his much missed, long-dead brother Mike, killed in the war. Yet there is still more unspoken and unexplored! Whatever your view of this man’s politics, no-one cannot deny the extraordinary breadth and impact of his life on millions of people and indeed the Nation.
“Flight!” he exclaims, “We should all learn how to fly… but we don’t because of fear of what we might actually achieve”. Indeed. The most thrilling moments come as he commits to his cause in impassioned, glorious ranting. His voice becomes deep and dark as he passionately orates, particularly as he recalls the Durham Miners March in memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs as “the most beautiful day of my life”. Seeing miners, suffragettes and ordinary working people marching “who wouldn’t want to be marching alongside them?! You’ve got to be down there, not up in the clouds…” And “always hope…” He rages… “There is the same battle to be fought over and over again so Toughen Up! Bloody toughen up.”
Anyone interested in politics should see this before it closes on Sunday 17th May (both Penge East & Penge West stations are only minutes away and the food at the pub is delicious!). And anyone wanting to delight in a masterful performance should definitely not miss Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn.
Review by Catherine Françoise
Tony’s Last Tape
Playing until 17th May 2015
Director Giles Croft
Designer Rachael Jacks
Wednesday 6th May 2015