NOTE: The following review dates from April 2003 and this production's earlier run at the West End's Arts Theatre.
According to the show's marketing materials, Justin Butcher first wrote The Madness of George Dubya in just three days and rehearsed it in a week - and I can believe it, though I'm not sure that's something to brag about. At the interval on opening night, a colleague described the result as "rough and ready".
That it is, coming in haste to the West End now, unapologetically displaying its low-budget fringe credentials (following sell-out seasons in February and March at first the tiny Teatro Technis and then Pleasance theatres) and, of course, its topicality. This is, after all, an anti-war play, penned in protest against American and British aggression in Iraq and - so says the show flyer - "rewritten daily!" as needs must.
The irony is, though its timeliness is its selling point (and gives it a self-imposed sell-by date), The Madness of George Dubya is reliant for both its plot and occasional flashes of brilliance on two 40-year-old cultural products of the Cold War. Stanley Kubrick's 1964 flick starring Peter Sellers, Dr Strangelove - in which a renegade general launches an unprovoked nuclear attack in a bid to protect the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people - provides what passes for the story, while the songs of 1960s political songwriter Tom Lehrer add welcome, energetic spice.
Butcher's main contributions are to swap communists for Arab terrorists (pronounced like 'tourists' by Thomas Arnold's clueless PJ-wearing, Teddy Bear-toting Dubya), impart some direction (often quite slack) and to generally update (sometimes quite cleverly, though never subtly) dogma, lyrics and characters.
The characterisations are helped by some gung-ho performers with a dab hand in impersonation - most especially, Nicholas Bearns as a hilariously 'empathetic' Tony Blear (sic) - and hindered by the crassest stereotyping I've seen in some time. While my own nationality (yes, I am American) may make me more sensitive, I can't be alone in finding the portrayal of my compatriots - at best, racist, ignorant rednecks (please, shoot down those pilots!) or, at worst, psychotic megalomaniacs - a tad offensive.
Which is not to say that I don't agree with many of The Madness of George Dubya's sentiments or that I begrudge the show its right to satirise and provoke. Besides, things definitely pick up in the second half, when Rupert Mason's review of a century of Western intervention and Iraqi suffering - though it comes in a theatrically unfriendly didactic lump - rouses nonetheless.
Still, this is a hammer-blow speech - and ultimately a show - that serves to confirm the views of a self-selected anti-war audience rather than to convert the opinions of opponents or enlighten the confused masses stuck in the middle.