The legendary puppeteers return at the Rep, watched by Jessica Harris.
A new king installed, a nation in turmoil, shadowy forces on the horizon. What better than to assemble a crack team to sort things out? Enter the Birmingham Rep with a medley of life-size puppets and a plot more improbable than a year in the life of British politics.
First up is Charles III, railing that the fabric of society is falling apart. Who should he appoint to lead the team? Clearly Tom Cruise with his razor-sharp focus and an appetite for missions impossible.
Carefully selected through a talent show, the crack team is formed: Idris Elba, Angela Rayner, Tyson Fury, RuPaul, Meghan Markle, Greta Thunberg and Tom Cruise himself. The forces of darkness are many and mercurial, but central are Johnson, Sunak, Trump, Zuckerberg, Musk and Murdoch. Perhaps the darkest force of all, Margaret Thatcher, makes an appearance towards the end.
And so the scene is set satire. Nothing is off the cards, the humour is risqué and the mockery bites deep, very deep.
The brilliance of this show is in its caricature and its puppetry. Characters are instantly recognisable, with physical features and personality vividly captured in the puppets. Arms, hands and mouths are articulated, enabling movement, gestures and facial expressions. Mostly, puppets are upper body only, with the legs of puppeteers beneath. And their posing, strutting and dancing says it all. It is not long into the show before you feel you are looking at real people.
A few puppets are far smaller in scale, and the oversized egos of the illustrious and the notorious are cruelly shrunk. Ian McKellan is a tiny master of ceremonies, Michael Gove puts in a pint-sized appearance, Suella Braverman is a demonic creature of minute proportions, whilst Putin looks like he has shrunk in the wash.
Other puppets were not related humans at all. Thérèse Coffey appears all to briefly as a maggot, trademark cigar in mouth, whilst Liz Truss is a lettuce – limp, wilting and definitely off-colour.
Puppetry aside, the other joy of the show is in its many vignettes: from the tap dance routine of Russian president and troupes to Putin on the Ritz, to Kier Starmer attempting to join the plane deporting the crack team to Rwanda, to Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage as border force police rejecting the team on its return to the UK, the satire is penetrating, the wit is cutting.
Possibly, there are a few too many puppets – it’s hard to think of a well-known face that didn’t have a presence. A bit more space for sketches to develop would not have gone amiss. On the other hand, the lack of scruples that has characterised our recent politics has provided a surfeit of material. Narrowing it down must have been difficult. The Rep describes the show as a work in constant progress and is determined to keep its content up to date, so much so that on press night, keen to announce her resignation on stage, Nicola Sturgeon made an appearance, shaking her fist and cursing the English audience.
Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves the World is inspired by the BAFTA and Emmy award-winning Spitting Image television series which originally ran between 1984 and 1996, and recently returned to TV on BritBox. It was directed by the Rep’s artistic director, Sean Foley. Caricaturist Supremo was one of the original Spitting Image co-creators, Roger Law. Writers were Al Murray, Matt Forde and Sean Foley. Set design was by Alice Power, and video designer was Nina Dunn for Pixellux.
Boris is down, Truss is out, and the Queen sadly gone for good. Word on the street says the Rep had to tear up several versions before this one hit the stage. Best advice: see it while you can, before UK PLC takes another about turn.
Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image Saves the World is presented by Avalon and Birmingham Rep. It runs at the Rep until 11th March. For further information visit birmingham-rep.co.uk
Pics: Mark Senior