mon 26/02/2024

Berlusconi, Southwark Playhouse Elephant review - curious new musical satire | reviews, news & interviews

Berlusconi, Southwark Playhouse Elephant review - curious new musical satire

Berlusconi, Southwark Playhouse Elephant review - curious new musical satire

A reprehensible man treats women badly, but the political magic is left entirely unexplored

Bad behaviour: Emma Hatton, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Sebastian Torkia and Sally Ann Triplett in 'Berlusconi'Nick Rutter

One wonders if Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan pondered long over their debut musical’s title. Silvio might invite hubristic comparisons with Evita (another unlikely political leader), but Berlusconi feels a little Hamilton – too soon? They went with the surname of their anti-hero which appears a mite unwieldy on the playbill.

Alas, that’s not the last unwieldy element of this sprawling, curiously unengaging, half-hearted skewering of Italy’s preening populist. 

We open on a stage all but filled with a bright white set of steps that half-reminded me of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument round the corner from the Colosseum in Rome and half-reminded me of the steep rake and very narrow stairs of The Other Palace theatre, an incubator of new musicals like this one. Impressive, I thought, expecting it to be rolled away after a big opening number – but it stays! I can’t have been the only one in the house experiencing a mild panic every time one of the cast ascended or descended Lucy Osborne’s most impractical of sets. I know Berlusconi’s career had its ups and downs, but…

With just a narrow strip in front of the steps available for the choreographer Rebecca Howell to create effective movement, a key component of musical theatre’s storytelling apparatus is largely eschewed, back-filled by the increasingly clichéd trope of an on-stage camera operator’s video being projected behind the performers and on screens stage right and left (irritatingly, slightly out of sync on opening night). 

The framing device of a TV news report breathlessly awaiting the verdict of Berlusconi’s 2012 trial for tax evasion forms the armature on which a series of flashbacks traces the boy from Milan’s rise to power in property, media and politics. Dialled up to 11 from the start, the breathless reporting and urgent on-screen graphics become a little wearing 90 minutes or more into the evening, but that may be a by-product of those glaring white steps dominating everything and the sweet release of the chance to look elsewhere.

There’s an allusion to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in the childhood meeting of Silvio (Sebastien Torkia pictured above) and Antonio (Matthew Woodyatt) who become lifelong friends, the former climbing the slippery pole and the latter fixing things behind the scenes and giving advice that is largely ignored. We never quite get to the heart of their relationship, but we never quite get to the heart of any of the characters, which makes it difficult to become invested in the jeopardy as Silvio leaves a trail of wrecked lives in his wake.

Torkia can do a manic grin and is sing to a high standard of singing but never captures the cynical charm of the vulgar chancer. (That’s a sharp contrast with Toni Servillo’s masterful portrayal in Paolo Sorrentino’s epic 2018 movie Loro). The extraordinary trajectory of the protagonist’s life just seems to happen - the cruise ship crooner becoming the "King Of Bricks" builder, becoming the owner of television stations and AC Milan, becoming Prime Minister. There’s no political philosophy presented, still less explained, and, though we’re warned in a coda to “Be Careful Who You Vote For”, because we don’t know how he wielded his power, we don’t know the price paid by the Italian people and the song falls flat. James Grieve’s Director’s Note in the programme implores us to “...look past the razzmatazz… of our charming political leaders to the substance of their policies and evidence of their morality”, but we are none the wiser as to the former almost three hours later.

The story is largely told through the eyes of four women. Ilda is the dogged prosecutor who pursues her prey like a heroic lawyer hunting down a Cosa Nostra capo. Sally Ann Triplett nails her big numbers, but with no backstory, the role is underwritten and seems little more than a cipher to reel off (at one point on an actual reel) Berlusconi’s catalogue of criminal or quasi-criminal acts. 

Jenny Fitzpatrick fares little better with her news reporter, Fama, plucked from a nightclub by the roving eye of Berlusconi and dropped into one of his TV stations as a teenage weathergirl who knew nothing about weather. After a bit of pre-#MeToo oily groping, she’s the youngest news presenter on Italian TV at 22 and the object of social media bullying. She resents that treatment at the (literal) hands of the media mogul, but she is given no agency by the writers, so we never get to know her, to understand the emotional impact of her now broken relationship with Silvio, nor what viewers felt about her reporting on his trial.

There’s a little more at stake for Emma Hatton’s Veronica, the long-suffering ex-wife who tells the truth about her husband’s character to the judge in the cold terms of a woman scorned. 

What’s missing is driven home by the best song and the best voice in the show - "The Smoking Gun" by Natalie Kassanga’s Bella. The bunga bunga parties are often presented as a bit of a joke in this country (there’s a bar in Battersea with that name) but the stakes rocket up when Kassanga sings of Bella being more or less trafficked into sex work at Berlusconi’s behest. Here is the emotional power, the pain, the victim that the rest of the musical cannot locate: We need more of Bella and of Kassanga’s sublime vocals. 

Sung through, the score, played with a driving enthusiasm by Jordan Li-Smith’s five strong band, gives a Tommy-like rock opera feel to the production that never quite takes off as it’s so hemmed in by the set. On occasion, drums, guitar and bass overpower the voices, despite the cast amplification. 

That Berlusconi was, like the populist leaders who have come  since, a reprehensible individual is inarguable, but, minus the politics, we get something a little too bland to sustain a full length musical. An exploitative boss, a bad husband, a heartless frequenter of sex workers, are all traits worthy of condemnation but too commonplace to keep this ship afloat. Perhaps the real revenge this show offers to his victims is that it portrays Silvio as what he would dislike above all else – it makes him ordinary.      

The stakes rocket up when Natalie Kassanga sings of Bella being more or less trafficked into sex work at Berlusconi’s behest

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters