Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical - Phoenix Theatre
The puppet-powered satire has found its way to the West End
Escaping from the realms of BritBox, the grotesque incarnations of royals, politicians and pop culture icons have burrowed their way into the Phoenix Theatre, ready to offend anyone and everyone at will. Retaining its crude and controversial roots the caricature ladened romp is packed with ingenious puppetry and design but remains stuck in a time when satire was simpler and has therefore failed to evolve for modern times.
The odd premise for the plot is that ahead of his coronation King Charles must assemble a crackpot team to help repair the 'fabric of the nation' whilst an underground, villainous faction led by Boris Johnson is attempting to have Johnson instated as monarch instead. Charles opts to have Tom Cruise lead his team (because why not) and the hobbit-sized puppet draws on his action-hero skillset as well as the bravado of Ru Paul, Angela Rayner, and Greta Thunberg amongst others to save the day. Hardly a Pulitzer-winning plot but what did you expect?
The sheer number of characters is impressive, ranging from a drug-dealing Paddington and an assault rifle-wielding President Zelensky to a demonically possessed Suella Braverman and a haloed Gary Lineker. The caricatures are instantly recognisable and puppeteered to perfection by the talented cast, who seamlessly switch between roles in a carefully choreographed motion. The technical prowess of the on-stage team is an utter delight to witness as they work with the myriad of expertly designed puppets - a standout achievement in this bizarre setting.
Now there is a lot of brilliant humour bursting out of the show - including up to date references to peerages and resignations that occurred this week, but for every two or three jokes that land there is at least one that stalls the scene and interrupts the flow. This is further hindered by the use of prerecorded lines, meaning the comedic timing often falls flat, unable to adapt to the pacing of the live scene and audience reaction. It’s a shame as some of the best quips are lost under chuckles from the previous joke.
Spitting Image is at its best when punching up, a prime example being the continual appearance of Keir Starmer draped in an assortment of superhero attire, desperate to join the team or when the eclectic, insect-inspired tory party are led through the audience Circle of Life style - Thérèse Coffey imagined as a smoking maggot, delightful. But on occasion the punches are directed downwards, Greta Thunberg for instance, is reduced to a whiny teenager. But then again the show itself comments that it is much easier to laugh at the outlandish jokes made at the expense of those we don’t like compared to those we do.
Satire is a beautiful thing and essential to our modern society. We should rightly be allowed to poke fun at those in charge, free to criticise and laugh but in a climate where polarisation is so vast and abhorrent decisions are regularly taken, often targeting the most vulnerable, there is little space for satire to exist. Spitting Image does its best to recognise this, using real images from across the last few years to emphasise the impact that these characters are making on our behalf. More evolution is needed, however, because it risks us laughing along with the bumbling fools instead of holding them to account for their consequential actions. Uncomfortable at times and not for the right reaons, Spitting Image is not the right vessel to do this going forwards.
There is no doubt that for many people this is a rip-roaring night out but for most, the lure of outstanding puppetry will not be enough to overcome the high ticket price and further over-saturation of characters we’ve seen and heard from in abundance for the last few days and weeks, let alone years. A mediocre marvel.
Running until 26 August - Tickets
Photography: Mark Senior