Tony’s Last Tape (Omnibus Theatre)

A first trip to the former Clapham Public Library, which has been causing a stir as the Omnibus Theatre for the past few years.

I was sad to pass on an invitation to review the recent Lipstick, but this combination of politics, light comedy and affectionate imitation tempted me south of the river to buy a ticket.

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.

Tony’s Last Tape was first performed in 2015, shortly after the death of Labour veteran Tony Benn and hot on the heels of Skip Kite’s documentary Tony Benn: Will and Testament.

In this stage play, written by Andy Barrett and directed by Giles Croft, actor Philip Bretherton inhabits the persona of Benn at the end of his long life – still the democratic socialist firebrand, but also an elderly man with shaking hands and dodgy legs.

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.

It’s an affectionate portrait and depiction of a man who may have polarised opinion, but left nobody neutral. A leader-in-waiting destined to become a sidelined backbencher and a thorn in the side of PM Tony Blair, who represented everything the Bennite philosophy was not.

Bretherton’s Benn is found late at night, unable to sleep, shuffling around in his dressing-gown and ‘say no to the Poll Tax’ t-shirt. Smoking his pipe, eating bananas, rifling through his published diaries to remember words he has already said, he is documenting his last days on the fringes of politics.

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.

The room is cluttered with a lifetime dedicated to social change – desk with books, tape machine, dictaphones; filing cabinet with letters (‘dear arsehole …”, and news clippings); chair; gadgets. Rachael Jacks and Martin Curtis have created and lighted a space which feels right for this ageing left-winger to exist in.

In between the flashes of bombast and anger at the likes of Thatcher and Kinnock, this Benn has real regrets about his shortcomings as husband and father, and about his thwarted ambition – and in one powerful sequence there’s a flash of pride in the old man to see he’s on a banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.

For Barrett to evoke such a complex character (the play is a hybrid of his own words, and Benn’s) when this politician is so clear in recent memory is quite a feat. When we can laugh at the squeaky toy megaphone Benn has purchased from Oxfam for his granddaughter, and then later feel moved by his recollection of dropping off his late wife’s clothes (‘bring them back … bring her back’), that’s clever work on everyone’s part.

Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gets a brief mention too, as Benn’s comrade-in-crime putting up unofficial plaques across Parliament. Tony Benn did not live to see his friend’s success but I suspect he would have been both delighted to see the return of Democratic Socialism, and amused to reflect on the media’s response to it.

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn. Photo credit Robert Day.

He was nothing if not pragmatic, this man, who renounced the peerage he inherited (the second son, the heir died in wartime, and the younger Benn replaced his own RAF wings with his) so he could serve the people as an MP.

Philip Bretherton has clearly grown into the role and evokes memories of the veteran statesman (and oddly enough at times, Benn’s cousin the comedy actress Margaret Rutherford) without settling into caricature. It is an enjoyable and accomplished performance (and very different from his smarmy TV roles such as the literary agent in As Time Goes By).

Tony’s Last Tape continues until the 20 April at the Omnibus, which is a short walk from Clapham Common station.

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