❚ THE MAJOR MIRACLE about Birmingham Rep’s new show Spitting Image Saves The World is that the move from satirical television to live theatre stage succeeds brilliantly. And hilariously. Not only are the puppeteers visible (though clad in grey from head to foot) while animating their giant plastic caricature heads and arms and indeed lending them “legs” – from superstars to cabinet ministers to royalty. They also execute physical illusions and perform exacting song-and-dance routines that fill the stage. And for the hundred or so celebs depicted, most are voiced by equally superb impressionists. Seldom before have we witnessed a stage show as ambitious as this involving complex scene changes.
As with the Central TV series that created Spitting Image in the Eighties, satire fuels the comedy, while two hours on-stage require a storyline. The mission improbable is quickly identified as rescuing the dicey state of the nation – or more whimsically, “the fabric of society”, epitomised by King Charles III waving a pair of soiled underpants aloft.
The puppet heroes recruited to meet the challenge run from a tiny Tom Cruise to Ru Paul, Stormzy, Idris Elba, Greta Thunberg, Angela Rayner and a robotic Elon Musk. An adversarial establishment is led by Rishi Sunak in school uniform, Rees-Mogg as a very tall stick insect, a dancing Gove, Javid, Truss, Raab, Patel, Carrie and Boris Johnson and Suella Braverman as a haunted child from The Exorcist. All are mercilessly sent up along with Harry and Meghan, Wills and Kate, Edward, Ant & Dec, Kier Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Presidents Xi Jinping, Zelenskiy and Putin. Sir Ian McKellen opens the show as Narrator, while HM QE2 closes it on electric guitar, riffing on Queen’s We Will Rock You.
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Just before the late Queen’s finale, the storyline had run out of steam. The previous three scenes had nothing to add, yet each closed with a red-curtain flourish as if each was the last. They could be cut completely. So too could the many four-letter expletives used frequently throughout the script. These were not laugh-lines, but mainly casual exclamations. Birmingham Rep is proving as foul-mouthed as London’s National Theatre, where its production of Phaedra is lubricated by unnecessary hard-core expletives. Do these theatres really believe swearing somehow ticks the trendy “diversity” box?
One further source of irritation was that of the dozen voices providing vocals during Spitting Image, half of their microphones sounded so fuzzy as to be useless. Words and lyrics were seriously less audible than the other half dozen. Ruinous when wordplay is key. (Coincidentally, the same went for last August’s musical Counting & Cracking which suggests a technical fault might lie with Birmingham Rep as the House, not the individual company performing.)
That said, this Spitting Image show is highly original and is directed by Sean Foley with great imagination (congratulations to Alice Power for those costumes it would be a spoiler to describe). Along with plenty of other show-stopping highlights, Putin’s tap-dance routine deserves a rollicking long future. As do the 12 grey-clad puppeteers. When they stepped down-stage together to take their curtain call – their names arguably unknown to most of the audience – it came as a sudden epiphany to accept that their skills had created every one of the characters and driven the entire performance.
❏ THE PUPPETEERS were Kate Bradley, Paula Brett, Kaidan Dawkins, Bertie Harris, Jojo Lin, Pena Iiyambo, Chand Martinez, Will Palmer, Helen Parke, Rayo Patel, Tom Quinn, Faye Weerasinghe.
➢ Idiots Assemble – Spitting Image Saves The World
is live on stage at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday
11 March. Later it is likely to tour.