Writer: James Graham
Director: Simon Stokes
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Get ready for a tsunami of television revivals in James Graham’s very funny, new play, Monster Raving Loony.
Graham continues to mine the previously overlooked era of post-war20th Century party politics and puts together a tremendous evening out from the most surprising events. In the National Theatre’s sell-out This House, Graham finds comedy in the voting lobbies of parliament. In this production, Graham shines a light on the life of David Sutch, otherwise known as ‘Screaming Lord Sutch’, leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Anyone over 35 may remember the sight of a crazily dressed, long-haired candidate with an over-sized rosette standing alongside the recording officer and hopeful MPs on election night waiting for the count. Rarely getting more than a few hundred votes, but always noticeable for his mega-phone and large hats, Sutch and his colleagues in the Monster Raving Loony Party, stood as independents as a challenge to the established parties.
Sutch first stood for parliament in 1963. This was an era when popular culture started to openly challenge the establishment with programmes like That Was the Week That Was. The Monster Raving Loony Party extended that challenge into campaigning and party politics itself with Sutch and his colleagues contesting seats at general and by-elections. Campaign promises were always ridiculous. One of the most renowned, to revoke income tax on the basis that it was supposed to have been a temporary tax to raise money for the Napoleonic Wars. With his satirical swipes at the politics of the era, he may not have got many votes, but he really irritated the establishment.
What is ingenious about Graham’s new play is that it tells Sutch’s story through the TV shows of the era and it works extraordinarily well. Sutch’s early romantic antics are played out as if in one of Benny Hill’s farces. Scenes from Till Death Us Do Part, Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, TW3, Hi-di-Hi, Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Absolutely Fabulous and more, are all played out by the ensemble cast to portray the politics of the era or aspects of Sutch’s public or private life. Cast appearances as Tommy Cooper, Mike Yarwood, Kenneth Williams, Frank Spencer, Tom Jones, Morecambe and Wise, Derek and Clive are all cleverly intertwined into the plot to reveal some aspect of Sutch’s character or life. Occasionally TV screens around the outside of the set are used to broadcast scenes from the era. Despite the complexity, and the frequently changing characters and scenes, the production is seamless thanks to Director Simon Stokes
The audience is initially lead through designer Bob Bailey’s horrendous gold and gaudy foil curtain with more kitsch reminders of the era inside and on stage. Initially, it feels like a nightmare of your worst memories from the 70s but once the action starts you find yourself realising there was so much from this era that was really good and the characterisation in so many of the TV series of the time are excellent and lovably enduring.
The ensemble cast is remarkable. Each takes on an assortment of roles. Joe Alessi is spot-on with Alf Garnett and many others, as is Joanna Brookes’ Elsie Garnett and the Sue Pollard character in Hi-di-Hi. Samuel James plays Sutch and displays tremendous versatility and range in playing, in character, some of television history’s more famous moments. We may never tire of Eric Morecambe and Frank Spencer’s catch phrases. James gives us the pleasure of seeing them all again. Camilla Beeput and Jack Brown complete the ensemble providing hilarious support playing numerous characters from the era. Special credit to composer Tom Attwood who, on stage throughout, played his way through a musical memory lane of the best and worst of the period.
At the end of the evening we don’t find out too much about David Sutch, which is a little unsatisfactory. Despite the hilarity of the evening, Sutch’s life was rather tragic. Graham hints at emotional or mental difficulties through showing clips from interviews with Stephen Fry and Tony Hancock. Sutch was an outsider who never really found his place in the world. As actor Samuel James says in character as Mike Yarwood at the end of his shows when he had finished his impersonations, ‘and this is me’, has a tragi-comic poignancy. We, or David Sutch, never really worked out who he was or where he fitted in. Ironically, despite being the least successful politician ever, he ended up being the longest serving leader of a political party. That is something.
Runs until 27 February 2016 | Image: Contributed