Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical at the Phoenix Theatre – review

The cult classic is live in the West End until 26 August

A Spitting Image puppet of Ian McKellen holds the curtain open on stage
A puppet of Ian McKellen in Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical, © Mark Senior

The biting edge of Spitting Image has always danced closely to whatever that precipice of acceptance and decency might be. Satire and the need to hold our public servants and celebrities to account is a long and honoured tradition of course – so fair play to the high-level politicians that were in the opening night audience for this new stage adaptation of the hit TV show, almost certainly all clenched in anticipation that it could be their turn for a roasting at any moment.

First broadcast in 1984, Spitting Image quickly acquired iconic status with a brilliantly imagined aesthetic and a barbed wit that was lapped up by its TV audience. Now, in an age of social media and with a culture of open commentary on the professional and personal lives of anyone and everyone, it is more difficult to be original and certainly more difficult to shock in quite the same way. Original creator and understatedly acknowledged caricaturist supremo, Roger Law, along with contemporary new comedy writers, Al Murray, Matt Forde and co-writer/director Sean Foley, have set about bringing the once popular puppets back to savage life, but it is with mixed success.

A narrative about as solid as the rubber that forms the puppets’ faces loosely strings together opportunities to pillory the latest objects of ridicule. The soon-to-be-crowned Charles III discovers that the fabric of society (a pair of underpants) is falling apart and needs to put together a crack team of operatives to save society and ensure that he becomes King. He recruits Tom Cruise (who else?) to lead the ‘fellowship’ that also randomly includes RuPaul, Tyson Fury and Angela Rayner amongst others. They are set to battle with the conspiring forces of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and a whole host of Tories that are all out to wreak havoc.

It is undeniably exciting and equally impressive to see these remarkable puppets in the ‘flesh’. They are all remarkably executed, brilliantly observed and immediately recognisable. Law captures the essence of each of his ‘victims’ with a savage level of skill and a masterly eye for the grotesque, even if there is a lack of discernible expression to many of them. The combined writing never really elevates to anything other than the entirely predictable, however, and often cheaply offers humour that doesn’t always land and with an over-reliance on fart gags and dick jokes.

Met Policemen get an entire musical number in which they celebrate their racism and homophobia. Ukraine’s President Zelensky dances around brandishing a rifle in a war zone. A refugee boat full of celebrities makes its way from Rwanda to the UK. The humour is sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes questionable, but then we are given the heads up in the pre-show announcement that this show “identifies as funny” and that it “respects nothing at all” and that, in the words of Philip Schofield, some bits may be “unwise but not illegal”.

The pre-recorded soundtrack is clearly receiving regular updates to ensure a reasonable topicality. Nadine Dorries and the lack of her peerage along with Boris offering a Knighthood to his hairdresser all get a mention. Harry and Meghan are a constant presence throughout with Harry taking every opportunity possible to sell his book, Spare. A wickedly funny rendition of an exorcist-style possessed Suella Braverman is outrageously funny, whilst the dreary Keir Starmer that pops up regularly is spot-on hilarious.

Dragging John Major out seems to be a misstep and ages the overall concept somewhat with Edwina Curry jokes that are well past their sell-by-date, and a Britain’s Got Talent scene is a missed opportunity to explore more contemporary popular culture other than just the political and the royal. Adele, Ed Sheeran, Harry Styles and Lin-Manuel Miranda flash by so briefly that they are easy to miss.

The puppeteers all do incredible work. They bounce from puppet to puppet and work in some seriously choreographed dance moves at the same time. Big numbers from Braverman and Stormzy are fun, along with a great tap routine from Vladimir Putin to “Putin On the Blitz”.

It all makes for an evening that ends up being very hit-and-miss with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments but also some distinctly dubious ones as well.

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