TONY’S LAST TAPE
by Andy Barrett
Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common, Northside, London SW4 0QW to 20 April 2019.
Tues-Sat 7.30pm. Mat Sun 4pm.
Runs 70 mins No interval
TICKETS: 020 7498 4699
Review: William Russell 4 April.
The most dangerous man in Britain reminisces
He was once the most dangerous man in Britain whose aim was to obliterate democracy – or so said the Daily Mail. Eat your heart out Jeremy Corbin. Toy Benn is not forgotten but, as is the British way, was in his declining years best known as a diarist – he kept taped records of his life assiduously – and transformed from red menace into a national treasure. Andy Barrett’s play commissioned by Nottingham Playhouse presents Benn as an old man in his study sometime in 2013, a year before he died, reflecting on the past, on the present and the shape of things to come.
The text is based in part on Benn’s diaries but it is a work of fiction – there is, for instance, a character called Tom who is invented. Much of it, however, is in his own words and witty, heartfelt and perceptive they prove to be. Unlike Corbin – so far – he was far more dangerous in that he actually served in Government and caused endless trouble in the Labour Party the while as well as inducing apoplexy in the Daily Mail . It has been directed seamlessly by Giles Croft and Philip Bretherton gives a superb performance as Benn. He catches the essence of the man without resorting to merely imitating that very distinctive posh voice – he is not impersonating, but creating an old man with an upper class accent of sorts, someone who has lost family, friends, and a beloved wife, and who misses Westminster dreadfully. He is also a man amused by his transformation into national treasure and by all such status brings with it.
He sums his career up succinctly – baby of the House when elected for Bristol in 1950, energetic minister in two Labour Governments, future Labour leader, the most dangerous man in Britain and national treasure. This is an evening to relish, one spent with a politician who compared to today’s lot is a colossus. In his time Benn mattered. He could speak on the stump. He had ideas. He had energy. He tried to change things.
Barret has set all this in the context of his family life, which makes this lonely figure about to turn off those tapes all the more touching. He was, of course, one of a political dynasty – his father was an MP, served as Secretary of State for India, and became Viscount Stansgate, a hereditary title Benn later renounced when the law change, a cause celebre of the day. The dynasty continues – his son Hilary is in turn a Labour MP much involved in the issues of today.
Tony Benn served in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments as among other things Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Secretary of State for Industry and Secretary of State for Energy, and then, when Labour was in Opposition, moved to the radical left challenging Neil Kinnock for the leadership in 1988 and setting himself up as the leading thinker on the Labour left. He was an MP for 47 years, an outstanding figure at a time when the Commons was full of substantial political figures.
Barrett has written a splendid play and Bretherton comes up with a performance to admire and remember.
Tony Benn: Philip Bretherton
Director: Giles Croft.
Set & Costume Designer: Rachael Jacks.
Lighting & sound Design: Martin Curtis.
Production photography: Robert Day.