Tony’s Last Tape, Omnibus Theatre – Review

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Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn / All photos © Robert Day

Regardless of one’s opinions on the present Brexit debacle, it wouldn’t be amiss to say that the current crop of politicans in both main political parties are very different from their forebears of yesteryear. Even during his lifetime, MP Tony Benn was a man of ‘uncommon’ sense and the years since his death haven’t led to revisionism of his contribution to British politics… Written by Andy Barrett and directed by Giles Croft, Tony’s Last Tape looks at the last days of the Labour politician, as he makes a pivotal choice.

Following a bout of insomnia, Benn (Philip Bretherton) sits in his study where there are many papers and books, and an array of recording devices. After a lifetime of spending his ‘free time’ at home chronicling his parliamentarian career, perhaps life is telling him to call it a day… Bretherton’s Benn is fond of his family and in an understated way, proud that subsequent generations of Benns have inherited his aptitude for holding office and public speaking.

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But behind every anecdote and jokes he may have told at various funerals, the person who is ‘ever-present’ is his wife Caroline. The mortar to the cathedral of his life, her absence is keenly felt – especially at home.

Benn’s penchant for his smoking his pipe is faithfully created, as is his appetite for bananas. At times like these, Croft and Bretherton aren’t afraid to take their time and show Benn navigating the restricting effects of getting older.

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Anyone who remembers the politicians, celebrities and news events of yesteryear will hugely enjoy the way they are casually dropped in conversation – as well as hearing how they shaped Benn one way or another as a person.

While there are many references to Benn’s 47-year political career, we find his ‘stock’ in the public eye since ‘retiring’ has changed beyond recognition – his status as the bête noire of British politics (according to his detractors in the 1970s and ’80s) now a distant memory as he’s embraced by the younger generation. Indirectly, the play poses the questions: is the ‘success’ of a politician not only about having sound policies, but being lucky to strike a chord with zeitgeist? And why is it when Labour gains traction in the polls, the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun says it’s a ‘lurch to the Left’, but when the opposite happens, a ‘victory for the Right’?

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If one didn’t know about the minutiae of Benn’s view and his ambivalence to 1992’s Maastricht Treaty, one might find his views on Europe surprising. However, it does throw light on the mindset of certain politicians who are uneasy with the parameters of British versus European sovereignty.

In some ways, Tony’s Last Tape mirrors Peter Flannery’s Our Friends In The North in that Benn’s whole life is a history of postwar socialism in Britain. But asides from holding the status quo to account (at times angering some of his own party, as well as the Right) Benn didn’t let the official party line dictate what he could or couldn’t say.

What would Benn make of Parliament and the democratic process now?

© Michael Davis 2019

Four-and-a-half stars

Tony’s Last Tape runs at Omnibus Theatre until 20th April.

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