“It’s not a f***ing musical. it’s an opera you c**t!”
This statement, from the lips of Silvio Berlusconi as imagined in this uneven but technically inventive show packed with pulsating rock rhythms, gives you a feel for this world premiere Berlusconi – A New Musical, by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan.
With a definite whiff of Jerry Springer: The Opera, this show covers a lot of ground while sending up its subject, with as many misses as hits. There’s gold here, but blink and you might miss it.
Staged in Southwark Playhouse’s new Elephant theatre, Berlusconi sometimes threatens to spill out from its Romanesque arches and steps (set by Lucy Osborne), and often does, with characters popping up all over the ground space.
This musical manages a race across sixty years in a superficial way, but is held together by an eye-popping performance from Sebastien Torkia in the lead and a busy ensemble required to be singers, dancers and prop handlers.
What works best comes to life in the second act, as Berlusconi moves from media mogul to political titan, getting into bed (or boat) with Putin (Gavin Wilkinson as the love child of Rosa Klebb and Brian Glover) in a lounge number of twisted love, and playing on the world’s stage with Presidents and PMs.
The first act is all cruise ships, ‘King of Bricks’, and football. It even shoehorns in a comparison with the emperor Tiberius (lust for power and women), which has potential but is lost in a world of busy screens.
The video design by Stanley Orwin-Fraser) which hosts live news bulletins, newspaper articles with moving photos, and scene setting prompts, is a bit overwhelming, especially when showing different things.
These underline the influence of the media on the general populace, but sometimes the feed is out of synch and early on, there is unnecessary captioning of the women set to bring down the self-styled ‘Jesus Christ of politics’.
As a satire this sometimes lacks a sharpness of teeth and focus the litany of allegations requires, and only when ‘I am the smoking gun’ is sung by Bella (Natalie Kasssanga), a girl wined and dined into debauchery, that the claws come out.
Torkia often interacts with the audience (at all levels), which pulls us into the conspiratorial charm his character used to get ahead. James Grieve’s direction makes the most of the space and the motifs that suggest Berlusconi’s instability.
While the music is toe-tapping and often energetic, the lyrics are sometimes obvious (and guessable by the rhyme) and often veer to the banal. A recurring bit with the ghostly Mama B (Susan Fay) is funny but awkward.
There’s a great, but disjointed song for Veronica (Emma Hatton), former First Lady; a rousing anthem about prosecutor Ilda (a determined Sally Ann Triplett), the ‘devil woman’ for Silvio.
Arch manipulator Antonio (Matthew Woodyat)’s ‘paid by the devil’ moment (“make him think he’s a genius, make him feel like a king”) sparkles with suggestions of hidden power.
This version of Berlusconi’s life – to 2013’s court drama anyway – has potential but is currently a little skimpy. A trim here and there, a slightly roomier venue, would serve this well.
Berlusconi – A New Musical continues at Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) to 29 Apr – tickets here.
Photo credit: Nick Rutter