With the outrages of Abu Ghraib still fresh in our minds and no end to the Iraqi crisis in sight, the time is ripe for a comedic inquiry into the human rights abuses that have been carried out in the name of democracy and freedom. Alas, Guantanamo Baywatch ditches the cut and thrust of incisive political satire in favour of a parodic blunderbuss that blasts its targets with poorly-aimed salvos of juvenile mockery.
The effectiveness of those salvos depends on one's appetite for seeing Cherie Blair depicted as a nagging Liverpudlian fishwife, or George W Bush as a bumbling moron with a knack for embarrassing malapropisms. (One of the interesting features of David Hare's excellent Stuff Happens was its reluctance to accept this reductive stereotype.) The mickey-taking continues with a cigar-chomping, musculature-flexing Arnold Schwarzenegger, a limp-wristed Tony Blair and a war-mongering Donald Rumsfeld with no patience for "international opinion and all that bullshit".
Butcher's conceit is to have ‘Cherry Blear’, ‘Dubya’ and their respective spouses spend a summer holiday with Arnie and Rumsfeld at Camp X-Ray, which the President is keen to promote as a tourist destination. In the background, orange boiler-suited captives are routinely humiliated by American grunts ("I thought they were outsourcing torture these days!" mutters one prisoner glumly), though help is at hand from ‘Yasmina the Cleaner’, a suicide bomber disguised as a household skivvy...
Having aped Dr Strangelove and J B Priestley in his previous offerings, Butcher casts his net wider this time with allusions to Lewis Carroll, The Great Escape and the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Some of these references succeed; others, like a cabaret-style interlude, merely baffle. But while there's a sharp wit at work - the sequence where the British-accented detainees discuss a musical version of the Koran is priceless - it's too often blunted by a cartoonish anarchy that tramples roughshod over the play's serious subtext.
Fans of Madness will no doubt welcome more of the same, but newcomers to Butcher's oeuvre who start their acquaintance here may feel they're missing out on the joke.
- Neil Smith