Photo Credit: Robert Day
Christopher Walker reviews “Tony’s Last Tape” by Andy Barrett. Playing at the Omnibus Theatre Clapham until April 20th. https://www.omnibus-clapham.org. Box Office 0207 622 4105
*** (Three stars)
Tony Benn was a politician of many parts. A great writer and poet, he became a “cuddly lefty,” and ended as a “national treasure.” Throughout, he was a firebrand socialist who could whip up a sympathetic crowd to the point where they reached for their pitchforks. Philip Bretherton gives a bravura performance which captures all of these different faces. But do we learn more than we already knew?
Andy Barrett’s play is highly political. Benn once said if he ever left the House of Commons it would be only because he wanted to spend more time on politics. A promise (threat?) he lived up to. It will only really be enjoyed by those who adore politics. Especially politicos of an age to remember Benn at his zenith. The glory years of the seventies, when he kept Daily Mail readers awake at night.
This production at the “cuddly lefty” Omnibus also hopes to reach out to youthful Corbynistas. Because Tony Benn was the trusted mentor of one Jeremy Corbyn. On old videos of Benn speaking in parliament Corbyn can be seen dutifully sitting behind him in the House of Commons, nodding his support. When Tony Benn was asked on a visit to Moscow who could lead Britain he cited Corbyn. That was 1988! Later Corbyn returned the compliment, writing in the Morning Star “Benn – a Titan of our Movement.”
This is a one-hander, with Philip Bretherton masterfully playing an ancient Benn at the end of his life, ensconced in his study in Holland Park recording his famed audio diaries. The room is piled high with books and papers, a ramshackle collection of memories. This is rather what we have here in this piece. Benn rambles through chosen reflections on his life, which give a flavour of who the man was. But this 75 minute piece struggles to get a good hold on so action-packed a career.
In fact, the author Andy Barrett has missed a trick in failing to explore the many similarities behind Benn and Corbyn more directly. Tony Benn (like Jeremy Corbyn) came from a privileged background. Not just his father, but also his grandfather had been major political figures, and businessmen. Benn went to Westminster public school and then Oxford University. Benn sought to downplay, even to erase, these facts. Striking out any mention in his “Who’s, Who” entry, and famously changing his name. He was originally Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, then Viscount Stansgate, then (finally) “Tony Benn.”
This education is reflected in Benn’s clear erudition which shines out here. He comes across clearly as an intellectual. Indeed, he might have better suited as a political commentator than an actual politician. There seem very few actual achievements to boast of, and Barrett studiously avoids Benn’s biggest bloopers. Take his closing a blind eye to tyrants. Just as Corbyn has been criticised for his appearances on Iraqi TV, we have to remember Benn famously interviewed Saddam Hussein so he could make his case on Chanel 4. And that Benn thought Chairman Mao was perhaps “the greatest figure of the twentieth century.” Something the millions who died in Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” would find hard to agree with.
Barrett quotes Harold Wilson’s Conclusion that Benn was someone who “immatures with age.” This does come across in this work. But it could as easily be gleaned from listening to Tony Benn’s actual audio diaries themselves.