Harry Bignell reviews Tony’s Last Tape at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham.
As someone with little knowledge of Tony Benn ahead of this performance, walked into the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham unsure what to expect. The following hour was engaging, educating and humbling in fairly equal measure.
Mimicking the power and conviction in Tony Benn’s oratory, Philip Bretherton nonetheless is able to capture a degree of humility and pathos in his portrayal of Benn in the late years of his career, reminding the audience that no matter dynamic and irrepressible they appear to the public eye, rabble-rousing politicians are subject to the mundane human inevitability of getting old.
Andy Barret’s script that blends his own words with excerpts from Benn’s diaries and speeches reflects on this state of affairs as Benn ponders his decision to draw back from politics and how it means he will no longer need to worry about wearing incontinence pants during protests or ‘shuffling’ to the stand to make a speech.
Bretherton captures Benn’s oratorical charisma as he reflects on the ill-advised nature of England going to war in Iraq with words taken directly from Tony’s 1998 speech to Parliament. These moments are juxtaposed with episodes of both silliness and sadness and he reflects on socialist jokes told at fellow ‘comrades’ funerals.
Sadness remains a theme throughout as Tony reflects how he has left it too late to draw back from politics, waiting until after his wife had passed in a decision he calls ‘cruel’ – whether describing his choice or the circumstance of his wife passing before he had made time for her remains unclear.
The set design lends itself perfectly to this one-man performance, comfy clutter of the chest of draws and desk around which Bretherton shuffles being oddly homely, whilst the small pool of light illuminating this scene in the centre of a dark expanse of stage creates a sense of isolation.
This play combines pathos, politics and episodes of levity to bring to life diary recordings of a key figure in British socialist politics. Whether you want to feel roused by Benn’s words, bought believably to life in an engaging one-man performance by Philip Bretherton, or you just want to learn more about the man himself, Tony’s Last Tape is worth braving the inclement evening weather for.