Silvio Berlusconi’s story is not quite complete – in September 2022 he won enough votes to win a seat in the Senate, thanks to a snap General Election in Italy. Before that, he had a seat in the European Parliament, which he won in 2019. But this musical’s narrative ends shortly after 1 August 2013, when he was convicted of tax fraud by the Supreme Court of Cassation, in Rome. He was sentenced to prison for four years, but because of something called ‘Law 251’, as the production referred to it, apparently passed by Berlusconi during one of his stints as Prime Minister of Italy (there were three), citizens over the age of seventy years were not to be imprisoned. Aged 76 at the time of conviction, Berlusconi was instead subjected to unpaid community service.
A curious choice, then for a musical – although, as Berlusconi (Sebastien Torkia) insists, it’s an opera, a running gag that becomes just one of many untruths in an unwieldy storyline that, commendably, is considerably tamed by a briskly-paced production that ensures everyone is on the same page by making use of videos to tell the audience exactly who is who and what role they represent in this saga. The backdrop of television news (a camerawoman goes back and forth through the aisles in the stalls) may be gimmicky, but the captions make things so clear, and so easy to understand proceedings. It’s more than a little scary to think the field of politics has, in some ways, worsened since Berlusconi’s heyday – the writers behind Saturday Night Live had apparently struggled on occasion during the Trump Administration to come up with comedy sketches that were any more amusing than what was actually going on at the time.
Recollections may vary, as Queen Elizabeth II once said, about something else entirely, though the sentiment applies here, and those with a more detailed knowledge of Italian politics may beg to differ from the version of events as portrayed in this show. Berlusconi, or rather this show’s version of him, is the charismatic and confident alpha male who doesn’t so much think he is God’s gift to the human race but likens himself to the Son of God Himself (“I am the Jesus Christ of politics,” he declares). Every so often he shows signs of wavering, totally (in my view) unconvincingly. And then there’s a bizarre vision of his late mother, Rosa Bossi (1911-2008) (Susan Fay), who is so tame in her admonition of the great man, at odds with the usual portrayal of an Italian matriarch as expressive and forthright.
Indeed, there’s not much that’s authentically Italian here, aside from a few hand gestures on Berlusconi’s part. That said, the writers, Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan, have done well to portray the ‘whole’ man – his personal, business and political matters all come to the fore. But by positioning him – however correctly – as a ‘corrupter’ and ‘deceiver’ amongst other descriptors so early on in proceedings, the narrative effectively has nowhere else to go, and in a sense the couple of hours after the opening numbers only reinforce what was sung at the start. By the time the story reverts back to his childhood days, whatever innocence there may have been is lost by the summary judgements made against him in the first few minutes of the show.
The production values are high in this ambitious project, with a stage with fourteen steps to its highest level – Torkia’s Berlusconi’s head is above the floor of the balcony at Southwark Playhouse Elephant when he’s stood at the top. There are three tiers, all of which are contain hatches through which various props are handed out and retrieved. The technology involved didn’t always work as it should have done, and occasionally it worked too well, with the camera feed beginning too soon.
The show’s parting message to the audience is “be careful who you vote for”, one of several examples of the show trying too hard to extrapolate the life and times of Berlusconi to Blighty – another is name-dropping of various British public figures and characters (Prince Andrew, Dirty Den, Jimmy Carr, and so on): audiences are able to make relevant inferences and connections for themselves. Still, the production has a strong cast, with standouts from Veronica (Emma Hatton) and Bella (Natalie Kassanga) in their respective ballads. The narrative needs tightening and it needs to be staged somewhere larger: neither challenge is insurmountable.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It’s time to set the record straight. Please welcome to the stage the former cruise ship crooner turned multi billionaire and Italian Prime Minister… the much-maligned, misunderstood, humble man of the people Silvio Berlusconi!
A hilarious, naughty, noisy expose of the original perma-tanned media mogul and populist politician told through the eyes of the formidable women ready to share their side of the story and break the veneer of that million lira smile. As Silvio tries to enshrine his legacy by writing the opera of his life, his detractors are closing in…
Written by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan, based on an original idea by Alan Hayling.
Francesca Moody Productions and Thomas S. Barnes present
A New Musical
by Ricky Simmonds & Simon Vaughan
25 Mar – 29 Apr 2023