Berlusconi: A New Musical review – bunga bunga banality

Southwark Playhouse Elephant, London
It’s a nice idea but this disconnected show about the former Italian PM makes some bizarre choices and lacks satirical bite

This satire about Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has the inspired concept of sending him up in song, from his aborted career as a cruise-ship crooner to political office, ownership of AC Milan, bunga bunga parties and a blizzard of court cases. You could do a whole series of musicals exposing the populist strongmen who behave like “dangerous buffoons” (as Berlusconi’s ex-wife puts it). There are so many contenders, after all.

In James Grieve’s production, written by Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan, Berlusconi arrives on a Romanesque staircase designed by Lucy Osborne. It is the eve of a court verdict in his 2012 trial for tax fraud. Played by Sebastien Torkia, he is sufficiently oily with slicked hair, a megawatt smile and an impenetrable sense of invincibility.

We are told of his war on truth, and hear a charge sheet of offences from “corruption on an epic scale” to “extortion” and “sexual shenanigans”, but there is little detail or elaboration on how his premiership damaged the nation beyond mundanely repeated news reports.

We hear from his former wife, Veronica (Emma Hatton), one-time lover Fama (Jenny Fitzpatrick), prosecuting lawyer Ilda (Sally Ann Triplett) and his mother (Susan Fay), but although these women are given a voice, they sound generic. The emperor Tiberius sashays around at times, but this comparison is not pursued. Putin (Gavin Wilkinson) turns up, shirtless, for the duet My Weekend with Vladimir, but we’re not taken into the politics of this alliance either. Other world leaders make appearances, but it all feels spurious and disconnected.

The score has some serviceable songs, such as Let’s Get the Show on the Road, but more often sounds like the kind of cruise-liner music the young Berlusconi might have lapped up. Lyrics that aim for caustic irony are strained and ever so slightly ludicrous. A woman giving her testimony of sexual abuse speaks of having her “last smile pillaged away”. Berlusconi sings of ensnaring women (“Get inside their knickers, you get inside their hearts”) and men (“Control the fucking football and you have them by the nuts”). Rebecca Howell’s choreography can best be summed up as bizarre: hands emerge from the stage floor to shake jazzily or hold props, like disembodied extras from The Addams Family.

We never feel the sting of the satire, or come to know these characters. At over two hours long, it’s a shame such an inspired idea ends up feeling so banal and interminable.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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