The Phoenix Theatre
Flapping its way from the Birmingham Rep into The Phoenix theatre, the 80s hit TV show Spitting Image returns. What a flutter of talent, high expectations, and a desperate attempt to prove relevancy. Attempt being the operative word.
Aptly this theatre’s origin was a musical hall called The Alcaraz. Idiots Assemble is a rowdy bawdy show far more reminiscent of those bygone days, than the Phoenix’s time as Noël Coward’s stomping ground. Even its recent receiving house pedigree seems a distant memory.
The show started on ITV in 1984 running for a whopping 13 seasons, and at its high point being watched by 15 million people. Launching/cementing the careers of Roger Law, Steve Coogan, Hugh Dennis, Harry Enfield, and Jo Brand to name just a few.
It was an institution, sharp, satirical, topical, and ground-breaking. Proving that puppets weren’t just for children, and anyone was fair game for ridicule, even on British prime-time telly. A concept we take for granted now. The first to satirise the royal family openly they paved the way for programs as diverse as The Windsors and on the more serious side The Crown.
Sadly a 2020 revival on Britbox failed to live up to these gargantuan expectations and the theatrical leg of the franchise doesn’t do much better.
But shall we start with the good? It’s always nicer that way, isn’t it?
The visual jokes are by far the most effective. Roger Law’s original caricatures (kick-starting Spitting Image in the first place) are seen sketched slowly on the title curtain, gifted and cruel, my favourite. These savage lines, slashed in silicon and plastic rendered in 3D on the puppets are a shrewd continuation of his artistic talent. Alice Power’s production design, Scott Brooker’s puppet mastery, and Lotte Collett’s costumes combine to be almost worth the less effective sections. Again, the operative word being almost.
If you like any of the following, Liz Truzz bouncing on as a giant cabbage, the combined Tory party as nightmarish creatures (Reece Mogg as a praying mantis, Priti Patel as a vampire bat, Suella Braverman as the possessed exorcist girl), a set of wives and girlfriends of the Tory party riding giant wiggling penises. These jokes hit you hard, and are quite a sight. Simple, and devoid of any layered meaning. Just plain mean, with a sprinkle of politicised axe grinding, just the way I like my satirical soup. Heavy on the salt.
But what goes up, must come down, and you can guess now we have moved into the complaints section, and aren’t they numerous… Are farts satire? It sounds like a Buzzfeed article protecting the comedic realm of the straight white man but it’s an issue throughout. The comedy is at times gifted and complex and others, simply resorting to tired stereotypes and jokes about masturbation. Coward would storm the stage if he could, although seeing as he has been dead for 40-something years that would be quite a shock.
The “plot” is Tom Cruise (expectedly tiny) tasked by the royals to save Briton from moral disintegration with a crack team of random celebrities. Attempting to add some more relevant meat RuPaul and Greta Thumberg have been birthed, along with others. The ecoactivist is a wining one-note child, all fair game. But Ru is just a camp drag queen. Nothing is made of his exploitative relationships to the contestants of his famous show, or his historic transphobia. Golden opportunities for poking fun at the queen of the gays. Throughout the political and royal satire is more barbed than the newer editions, which seem uncomfortably written.
Sean Foley, Al Murray and Matt Forde’s “songs” and script are just clumsy re-writes of pop songs, shoehorned painfully into the joke they are trying to make about the celebrity singing them. Bringing to question whether this show can even be called a musical.
Lastly, we have the issue of relevancy. I wasn’t alive in the 80s, I didn’t live through the political and social turmoil, although I can see the similarities to our current predicament. I have also never worn leg warmers, but I do have a perm, so make of that what you will. The Thatcher and John Major puppets although drawing a gasp from the audience and being the most layered script wise feel like pandering to the original fans, not integral to the shoddy story.
Irreverent comedy isn’t a shocking thing anymore. Drawings or styrofoam simulacra used to spout off at the creator’s least favourite public figures are many and varied. Big Mouth, South Park, etc. Even the theatre isn’t safe from the attack-all form of comedy with shows like The Book of Mormon doing incredibly well. In comparison to these upstarts of comedy Spitting Image feels like a fossil, or even worse your drunk uncle trying his best to update his comedy routine with flashes of modern references amidst the fart jokes. The evening feels rather tragic and in need of a glass of water and a lie-down.
Grab tickets….if you really must… here…