Thursday, 22 September 2016

Tony's Last Tape @ Liverpool Everyman, 22/9/16

Tony Benn is brought back to life in Liverpool this week thanks to the Everyman's staging of Nottingham Playhouse's touring production of Tony's Last Tape.

This one-man, one-act piece from Midlands playwright Andy Barrett takes as its cue both the rigorous life-long habit the late socialist Labour MP had for documenting his life via a personal audio diary, and the Samuel Beckett play Krapp's Last Tape which it occasionally mirrors and draws comparisons with.  

It's a compelling showcase for the actor Philip Bretherton, a performer with a considerable body of work but who is perhaps best known as yuppie literary agent Alistair in genteel sitcom As Time Goes By, who captures something of Benn's voice and mannerisms but is altogether a more nuanced performance than a mere impersonation. Its a lovely subtle turn that captures the frailty of the aging Benn, but who allows for a flash of youthful righteous indignation at the merest whiff of injustice...or mention of Blair and Kinnock!

Barrett's play is at times witty, and at times deeply poignant. The play concerns Benn's determination in the small hours of a rainy night to mark the final full stop on his politically active, methodically documented life. Here in his study, in the bowels of his house (a wonderful design job from Rachael Jacks) he intends to make his last tape, and he's in ruminative mood; the play doesn't just reference Benn's political past, it also focuses on his personal past too, principally his grief at losing his beloved wife Caroline in 2000, and his brother Mike during the war. But it is in the political threads that we can see the contemporary and topical parallels with what is occurring right now on the left; you'd have to be spectacularly short-sighted not to spot the link between Benn and his fellow firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, and the play has something to say about how key protest is - never mind all this 'we have to be an opposition' nonsense. We have to fight, as Tony Benn clearly and passionately tells us before the curtain falls.

This was an enjoyable production that ran to a satisfactory 75 minutes without an interval, thereby ensuring it did not outstay its welcome and is well directed by Giles Croft. Tonight's 'opening night' performance offered an 'Afterwords' chat with Bretherton and the company, but I'm afraid I had to leave to catch my train and so missed this pleasure. Overall, the Everyman once again came up trumps; it really is a lovely space, though smaller perhaps than the production is used to, but this actually lent itself to the intimate nature of the piece rather beautifully. Unfortunately, I did find myself sitting to an old duffer who presumed he was sat at home in front of his TV rather than in the theatre, which meant he provided his own commentary at several key stages, burbling away to himself and remarking 'good' every so often, to show that he was enjoying it. I was also sat in front of a belching woman too, which was also pretty distracting! Ah well, the programme - a sparse affair - was free and a good night was had by all.

Tony's Last Tape runs at the Everyman until this Saturday.

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