Berlusconi A New Musical - Southwark Playhouse Elephant
We’ve had a Tony Blair rock opera so why not have a Berlusconi musical?
With a talented and reputable cast and creative team such as the one assembled for Ricky Simmonds and Simon Vaughan’s new musical, it would not be unreasonable to expect a blisteringly strong production, no? But alas, we are treated to a tonally deaf and bewildering musical, seemingly determined to reduce the unpleasant and criminal, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi into a farcical pantomime villain in which crass language and cheap humour are his only tools for communication. Quips about invading Ukraine from a shirtless Putin and gimmicky creative choices do little to save us from the cringe, which is in turn amplified by a distinct lack of Italian voices.
Berlusconi, the media mogul, politician, and football club owner declares himself the "Jesus Christ of politics" as he is carried in the cross shape around the stage. Sebastien Torkia embodies the slimy figurehead nicely, eyeing the audience throughout but ultimately the performance and direction fail to convey the reality of the character, simplifying him into a cartoon played for humour above all else. This is the timbre for the entire production - though claiming to be about the women affected by Berlusconi’s actions we are left to endure him bumbling around the space firing off crude language and blushing around Vladimir Putin. It uncomfortably misses the mark.
When moments of true sincerity occur they are massively undermined by the nature of the majority of the production. A heartbreaking number delivered by Natalie Kassanga is a glimmer of hope in the ill-thought-out musical. Her soaring vocals describing her experience of being ensnared at one of the infamous Bunga Bunga parties are powerful and vulnerable, allowing us to have an insight into the pain caused by the politician, particularly poignant in their link to the me too movement. Nevertheless, previous references to these moments as ‘sexual shenanigans’ betray their momentum and diminish their impact.
The towering, tiered set is too big for the new space at Elephant and Castle, forcing the actors into the laps of the front row, resulting in choreography that is cramped and restricted. Projection is used to add texture and vibrancy to the set, along with live camera feeds of performances which were sadly plagued by technical problems, resulting in blank video being displayed across the multitude of screens. Nice ideas but poor execution.
For a musical about an Italian prime minister, set in Italy there was a notable lack of Italian flavour in the production. Beyond compulsory flag waving and boilerplate stereotypes there was very little to ground the piece in Italian culture, begging the question of who’s story this is to tell. A few catchy tunes and an afterthought warning about who to vote for do little in repairing this disorganised mess of a musical that claims to elevate the voices of those manipulated by Berlusconi’s actions but instead it risks celebrating him by reducing him into a clown that we can all laugh along with as he casually tears holes in the media, democracy and the lives of those around him.
Running till 29 April - Tickets
Photography - Nick Rutter