The Madness of George Dubya may have got there first in not only satirising but also setting to music the Bush-Blair ‘war on terror’ in Iraq, but Alastair Beaton shows just how much better it can be done.
Rather than cannibalising Stanley Kubrick or hiding behind thinly fictionalised caricatures, in Follow My Leader, Beaton sends up real figures and recounts actual events. Occasionally, he misfires, but when his humour hits its target, the effect is devastating.
Mark Clements’ high-quality production – trimmed and toned since its Birmingham premiere – also saves the show from any chance of am-dram style school revue. The well-drilled ensemble - featuring Nicola Hughes in particularly fine voice and Peter Polycarpou in an almost endless series of spot-on comic cameos – parades with multi-tasking assurance around Philip Witcomb’s colourful stars-and-stripes stage.
But for all the razzle-dazzle around him, it’s Jason Durr’s Tony Blair who steals the show. A new hairline and ears may account for the physical resemblance with the prime minister, but Durr adds the physical gestures and vocal tics that make the portrayal – combined with Beaton’s script – pant-wettingly funny. During a supposed ‘improvisational’ aside in which Blair seeks ‘to bond’ with theatregoers, Durr had only to pause and gaze to reduce the first-night audience to hysterics.
Follow My Leader certainly isn’t subtle, but if your own politics fit more with Beaton’s than the real Blair’s, you’ll wear this one well.
- Terri Paddock
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from March 2004 and this production’s original run at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
The sight of Tony Blair on his knees, waving the Union Jack and crawling at the feet of George Bush, is one which will linger far beyond the curtain call of this new musical. Admittedly, the “special relationship” between the two leaders of the free world, the search for weapons of mass destruction and the war against terror are unlikely topics for musical theatre.
But this is, after all, the work of award-winning satirist Alistair Beaton, he of Spitting Image and Feelgood fame. And through a collection of witty, sarcastic and ironic pastiche numbers, (lyrics by Beaton, music by Richard Blackford), the whole sorry anti-terror saga is played out, from the collapse of the Twin Towers to present-day news – even Sven and his non-move to Chelsea gets a mention.
If you’re not convinced, consider the opening number which invites you to “call it entertainment, call it the George Bush Follies”. And it certainly is. There’s the waltz of pre-emptive defence (“the guy on the subway who gets in your way; you have to squeeze past him and hope he’s not gay; he gives you a smile so you blow him away; that’s pre-emptive defence”).
There’s the powerful Act One finale, showing news footage of the bombing of Iraq while Bush and Blair duet that they’re “sending you a cluster bomb from Jesus”. And there’s even a pantomime-style song sheet inviting the audience to sing along to “let’s all be anti-American, what’s so wrong about that?”.
Plot-wise, the Prime Minister (Jason Durr), having received a calling from God (the multi-roled and brilliant Peter Polycarpou) to be “a restraining influence” on Bush, tries his best to keep ahead of events but invariably follows Bush like the sheep in the stars and stripes top hat shown on the show’s poster. Good old George (Stuart Milligan) is simply power-mad and stupid - according to the show, that is.
Along the way, the company of nine play up to eight roles apiece, introducing the spin doctors, journalists, soldiers, prisoners, Washington staffers and British politicians, accompanied by Warren Wills at the piano.
It’s hard to put satire in print, especially when out of context, but not many writers could get away with calling a character “Muslim Bad Guy” and having him sing “I do it because I’m bad; I do it because I’m evil; I don’t have anything much to say; I just hate freedom in a general way”, juxtaposed with quotes from real Bush speeches on terrorists having no motivation or reason, they’re “just evil”.
Under the direction of Mark Clements, Follow My Leader is a well-orchestrated production which, at two-and-a-half-hours including interval, could do with a 30-minute trim. And, although the subject matter has been debated, derided and discussed in depth over the past two years, speaking purely from musical theatre land – at least it’s original.
- Elizabeth Ferrie