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Follow My Leader
by Brian Clover

Anyone not signing up to for the coalition of the willing should be forced to.
--- Pentagon Senior
Follow My Leader
Stuart Milligan as the President and Jason Durr as the Prime Minister
(Photo: Robert Day)
Are there any laughs in the Iraq War? Well, it depends where you look. Combat can always be treated with black humour to balance the tendency to heroics*, as Heller did with Catch 22 and Altman did with Mash. Right now Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury is running an Iraq storyline that manages to be both tragic and funny. Alistair Beaton, however, goes for the politicians's throats. It is their callousness, their hypocrisy, their ignorance, their disregard for people's lives that infuriate him. So he turns the guns on them with an angry piece of theatre that is neither play, revue, cabaret, musical, nor burlesque, as the excellent cast tell us right at the start.

In fact it is a series of sketches, songs (co-written by Beaton and Richard Blackford) and stand-up routines whose sole purpose is to ridicule the latter career of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his unblinking support for George Bush. The numbers are performed with great skill, both solo and ensemble, and are generally witty, lively and pointed.

Star billing has to go to Jason Durr, whose Tony Blair is scarily convincing, down to the last cheesy grin, insincere twitch, and shaved millisecond of phoney timing. The poor man has plainly spent hours studying tapes of our Prime Minister's performances and you hope it won't cause lasting harm to his soul or his career. (Unemployment figures jumped in Britain in 1990 when Margaret Thatcher resigned and thousands of impressionists lost their jobs: on present form Blair won't be long in the job.) It is worth going just to see Durr. You will believe a man can be cloned.

Peter Polycarpou excels in a variety of roles, though his Comical Ali, whose psychotic optimism makes him the only man capable of replacing Blair's exhausted spin doctor, is the stand-out comic act of the night. (His God, for some reason a Bob Hoskins-type gangster oozing genial East End menace, is also cherishable.)

Everyone else turns in excellent performances in an stylish production directed by Mark Clements. The simple but effective set is by Philip Witcomb, but special credit must go to Performance Music Director Warren Willis, who is on stage all night, until kicked off by an irate over-weight patriot.

But stagecraft is one thing. If you're going to tackle politics rather than tales of combat you need a sure grasp of the issues and here Beaton is not so convincing. The big questions surely are: why did Bush go to war and - for us Brits, anyway - why did Blair support him? Beaton, like many, cannot accept the official explanations but his own are bizarrely religious. His Bush is both stupid and motivated by commercial interests. Moreover, he slowly mutates from a genial grin, like a Cheshire Cat in a combat jacket, into an abstract force of pure malevolence, the Anti-Christ of the Apocalypse. Similarly, Blair, a smarmy sanctimonious twit who compares himself favourably to Jesus, is told to restrain the newly-elected Bush by God Himself. I don't think so: not even as a joke. A two-hour piece needs a better foundation than that.

In one of his more sobering numbers Beaton warns us not to demonise the Muslim Bad Guy: we need to understand, not stereotype him. And yet this is exactly what Beaton himself does to his targets in a number of caricatures - not just Bush and Blair, but his obese jingoistic tourist, his Guantanamo guards and his xenophobic tabloid readers. There is also a very dated parody of an ignorant, demented, cigar-chewing, Pentagon commander who may be - save us! -a suppressed gay. At times there is a crude anti-Americanism at work that weakens Beaton's case. I thought the chilling thing about these Pentagon folk was not stupidity but intelligence.

Beaton was presumably working against the clock of actual events, always a risky business and more suited to the short piece than the long one so don't go to the Hampstead Theatre expecting enlightenment on these complex issues. But some things are left to speak for themselves and ironically, the most disturbing sketch is a plain transcript of the first Bush/Blair press conference. Hard pushed to find common ground to cement their relationship these world leaders tell us they both use Colgate toothpaste and, after some thought, that they are both loving fathers (although they could have pointed out that each has a child arrested for public drunkenness). From such frail bonds comes war and devastation. As Beaton's Osama Bin Laden tells us right at the end, whatever the outcome of the war, the Colgate fans gave him everything he wanted, and much much more.

*Talking of which, are there any humorous treatments of the soon-to-be-hyped Iliad cycle, apart from Offenbach's Troy Story perhaps?

Follow My Leader
Written by Alistair Beaton
With music by Richard Blackford and lyrics by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Mark Clements
Starring: Jason Durr and Peter Polycarpou
With: Martyn Ellis, Dawn Hope, Nicola Hughes, Paul J Medford, Stuart Milligan, Giles New, Sévan Stephan, Warren Wills
Designer: Philip Witcomb
Musical Director: David Roper
Lighting Designer: Chris Ellis
Choreographer: Paul J Medford
Sound: Nick Greenhill
Musical Arrangements: David Roper and Warren Wills
Musical Director: Warren Wills
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 772 9301
Booking to 22nd May 2004.
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 27th April 2004 performance at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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