Book, Music and Lyrics: Henry Parkman Biggs
Director: Blair Anderson
In all the promotional literature, Trompe L’Oeil claims it is a “tongue-in-cheek musical inspired by famous surrealist pieces of art”. That’s its first deception.
Trompe L’Oeil started life as Trump L’Oeil and is actually a heavy-handed portrayal of the presidency of Donald Trump. The poster gives no clue of this. The show’s description gives no clue of this. The ushers at The Other Palace didn’t even know until they saw rehearsals. It must be intentional. Either, it’s an attempt to surprise and wrong-foot the audience, or it’s an admission that the play is pushing some old shtick.
Emer Dineen is Trump. She has the reverse panda face, all red with little white eyes. She also has the daft wig and large belly with her suit tailored to make her fingers peep out the cuffs like little peeled prawns. She does the Trump voice and the Trump mannerisms. Dineen gives a great performance, full of empty braggadocio, a singing, swaggering version of every cartoon that pokes fun at the little orange man. His opening song, Marvellous Me is a fun number which takes the meter of Dr Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle.
It turns out that Trump has made a Faustian deal with Vladimir Putin, a chance to be president in return for helping Russia. Putin secures the pact by putting a vice on Trump’s testicles which tightens every time he fails to double down on his own dictatorial impulses. This means the musical spends rather too much time discussing the plight of Donald Trump’s scrotum.
The key elements are covered; the inauguration, the wall, his tweeting, his response to the pandemic and losing the next election. There is a fun slapstick scene where two spies pour apple juice on his computer to stop him from tweeting. This gums up all the vowels but ‘e’ which leads to a song where Trump tweets lipograms, only using ‘e’ as a vowel.
The tagline of Trompe L’Oeil is ‘A Queer Love Story?’ and it does contain one. Rip the Republican and Demi the Democrat fall in love despite their different political backgrounds and the fact Demi is trans. These scenes contain the great chemistry between Alex Wadham and Dominic Booth and are the closest thing the show has to a heart. Odi et Amo is about Rip’s mixed feelings and Couscous is a starchier version of Kelis’s Milkshake. Hey Diddle Aye allows them both to profess their love using the simplicity of country music – it’s very sweet.
There are actually elements of surrealism in Trompe L’Oeil. The spies carry large apples like Magritte’s Son of Man and at a number of points, characters dissolve like Dali’s clocks. This happens when one of them describes living under Trump’s regime as ‘surreal’, and many characters narrowly skirt this word throughout.
The songs are fun and energetically performed; Bounce has Trump firing people as they ricochet around the stage on a trampoline. The linking numbers are reminiscent of Cabaret with a dash of Hamilton’s patter. Putin and his goons do a spirited take on Putting on the Ritz whilst dressed as a cross between Alex de Large’s droogs and Pierrot. Many of the songs contain hidden messages and it’s worth getting the programme to have these spelled out. As well as the lipogram song, there’s an anagram one. There are a number of songs where the notations form various pictures. Putin sings a Pushkin sonnet. These are all very clever conceits but really only make an impact printed on the programme; they aren’t particularly translated onto the stage.
For a play called Trompe L’Oeil, there isn’t much behind the surface beyond the clever-clever tricks with lyrics or song structure. Trump is essentially the same caricature every comedian had in their back pocket for the duration of his office. His supporters are bandy-legged hicks and his detractors snobbish types. Ivanka is brilliantly played by Olivia Saunders as a stiff Barbie doll, but that portrayal has nothing new to say. For all the visual and aural exuberance and fun, the play pushes the same tired clichés that were peddled in 2016. This shallowness leads to a particularly uncomfortable conclusion.
In the last song, Better Together, the cast joins as one and concludes that it’s actually much nicer to be nice. That’s not exactly where the world has found itself. Not only have other nations found their Trumps but successors like Ron de Santis have arrived with more extreme views and the will to actually enact them. What’s more, Trump himself is forefront of the US polls to stand as Republican nominee in the next election. He may actually be president again. As such, the ending to Trompe L’Oeil is not even a sticky plaster over a wound, it’s a glob of wet paper towel.
Runs Until 15 October 2023