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Tony’s Last Tape at the Omnibus Theatre | Review

Philip Bretherton in Tony's Last Tape - please credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton in Tony’s Last Tape – please credit Robert Day.

The sound of rain bookends Tony’s Last Tape, which was inadvertently very apt on the day the House of Commons adjourned much earlier than timetabled because water started pouring into the chamber. This show is an imagined insight into the thoughts of Tony Benn (1925-2014) (Philip Bretherton). As a note in the programme (sort of) clarifies, it’s a play “about a character called Tony Benn, based on the real-life Tony Benn”. It’s the kind of production that would naturally draw a sympathetic audience, inasmuch as people who really didn’t like Benn probably wouldn’t book tickets in the first place. As a production, though, whatever one’s political standpoint, it has a lot going for it, particularly for those who have had elderly relatives who did their best to keep living their lives to the fullest right to the end.

It isn’t strictly necessary to be familiar with Benn’s life and political career before seeing this show, always the litmus test for me. Being a one-act show, there has been some ruthlessness in excluding elements of the play doesn’t even bother going into with Benn’s role in peerage reform that led to the Peerage Act 1963 (in brief, allowing members of the House of Lords to renounce their peerages in order to sit in the House of Commons). Neither is his time as Postmaster General nor his constituency work in Bristol or Chesterfield given time. All is explained sufficiently, making the narrative easy to follow, and without going into so much detail that those well acquainted with Benn start to drift off.

The monologue is full of reminisces about time served both in Government and in Opposition – practically all of which is characteristically Tony Benn. One is left in no doubt, for instance, about his standpoint on the 1992 Maastricht Treaty: “I am strongly in favour of European cooperation but this treaty is a direct denial of democratic rights!” Benn’s personal life is included to a certain extent in the play, and when he talks about Mike, his brother who died in action in the Second World War, and his wife Caroline, who predeceased him, the pathos is there, poignant whilst never over-sentimental. While I’ve not read all of his diaries, this production does capture the essence of the man very, very well indeed. How many socialists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, especially if that person happens to have been Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet.

Some of the stories are not without humour, and Bretherton’s rapport with the audience is maintained to the end. The set is cluttered, but deliberately so, to give the feel of an office in Benn’s home that has been used for many years. Tellingly, Benn, or at least the version of Benn in the play, displays some vulnerability from time to time, as the ‘real’ Benn did in his published diaries – here, he talks of perking himself up when necessary: “I kept reminding myself that there are some socialists in the Labour Party just as there are some Christians in the Church”.

Oh, and Benn’s (in)famous pipe is on stage too. Not his actual one, mind you. It’s an absorbing production, and one that is perfectly paced, without falling into the temptation of cramming as much of Benn’s life as possible in the shortest possible time. Theatre appears to be kinder to Benn that it is to Thatcher (who got depicted as a drag ‘Queen of Soho’ at the Edinburgh Fringe). A compelling and fascinating play about an outspoken political figure.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

There is no final victory, there is no final defeat. Just the same battles which have to be fought over and over and over again.

An old man sits in a room faced with a collection of recording devices that he has collected over his long and eventful life. He opens a drawer, takes out a pipe, unscrews his flask and pours himself the first cup of tea of the day. For more than fifty years he has been recording everything that has happened to and around him, but today he has decided to make his last tape.

Based on the diaries of one of Britain’s most respected, divisive and celebrated politicians, Philip Bretherton’s acclaimed performance as Tony Benn reveals the struggle of a man who – having found himself no longer ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ but something of a national treasure – realises that it is time to gracefully withdraw from the fight. If only it was that easy.

TONY’S LAST TAPE
Excavate presents the Nottingham Playhouse production of Tony’s Last Tape.
2 – 20 Apr 2019
https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/

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